THE AD-FLAB DEBATE

By Alasdair Reid, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 05 March 2004 12:00AM

As the UK's children grow more obese, TV advertising is being made to shoulder the blame. How can the ad industry fight back, Alasdair Reid asks.

When it comes to the role of advertising within the whole issue of children and obesity, battle lines seem to be drawn up along confused and often obscure lines. Far more so than in the (superficially) comparable case of binge-drinking, teenagers and advertising. In both instances we are taking about a social evil in which advertising may well have a role to play. But in the case of alcohol, notions of cause and effect are often assumed to be black and white in their simplicity.

It is often assumed, for instance, that the drinks market will have a cheeky element which will try it on now and then - and sure enough, like naughty schoolboys, they're easily spotted. Where food advertising and children are concerned, there are fewer blatant offenders - unless you argue that the outrageous offenders are less easy to spot precisely because everyone advertising in this sector is a blatant offender. Many campaigners are understandably ill-at-ease with such a fundamentalist position.

Sure, there are many ads that annoy pressure groups. Celebrity endorsements, for example. They find it thoroughly irksome that a role model such as Gary Lineker should advertise crisps. Then there's the issue of pester power - and campaigners argue that advertisers have cynically developed a whole range of techniques that flout the spirit if not the letter of the law. Regarded as particularly pernicious was the McDonald's ad showing a boy playing his divorced parents off against each other.

Third, they insist that too many ads portray junk foods as a way of relieving boredom - either your own or that of your friends. Food as recreation. Or as a popularity enhancer.

But paradoxically perhaps, given the emotional intensity that lies at the heart of this whole debate, it often shades into abstractions and quibbles over the interpretations of numbers.

For instance, take the statistic that 95 per cent of food ads aimed at children are for junk foods - those that are high in salt, sugar, fat or a cocktail of all three. This is sometimes presented as if it is a conclusively damning statistic from an advertising and marketing industry standpoint.

But even the most blinkered campaigners readily admit that advertising is not the only factor here. After all, children have a limited independent spending power or freedom of independent action - and though pester power is often said to make up for this, there's no escaping the fact that parents have a primary responsibility here. As they do on the "calories out" side of the equation too. Few will deny that lack of exercise has a huge part to play in making children overweight.

In short, no matter how intensely felt some of the campaign stances are, they are often tempered by guilt. This is an emotionally confused and confusing issue. The advertising industry, though, is slowly waking up to the fact that it is being fitted up as the guiltiest of all guilty parties here. And it may be no easier to resist for the fact that the industry is being condemned in the general rather than the particular.

Ed Mayo, the chief executive of the National Consumer Council, is one of those who has spoken out most consistently (and effectively) against the "cumulative effects" of food advertising aimed at children. He reasons that a regulatory system that screens advertising on an ad-by-ad basis completely misses the point because it fails to comprehend the big picture.

He adds: "It is our firm view that children need to be protected from both simple and sophisticated marketing techniques employed by advertisers. It is simply wrong that, in an age of record levels of obesity, with proof linking food promotion to diet, children are subjected to such a barrage of TV ads."

Do people in government listen to the likes of Mayo? Absolutely they do. Especially as the "proof" he refers to was produced by a Government-funded body. The trigger to all of this was, of course, the publication in December 2002 of the Government chief medical officer's annual report, which noted a continuing growth in the proportion of overweight and obese children in the UK. Nothing new in that, you might argue - and you'd be right. Fat is one of the many penalties of prosperity and as a population we've been steadily putting on pounds since the end of food rationing in the early 50s. The trend accelerated in the 80s when the Thatcher government began selling off school playing fields to, ironically enough, supermarket chains.

But there was something new here. For the first time during 2002, children began presenting with "maturity onset" diabetes, a condition directly attributable to obesity that in the past has only occurred in adults of middle or older age. It prompted the CMO to draw a startling conclusion.

For the first time in a century, he stated, we might see the ever-upwards trends in average life expectancy begin to reverse. It might even become common, he added, for today's generation of parents to outlive their children.

Understandably, it set many hares running. On 28 March 2003, the Parliamentary Health Select Committee announced that it was setting up a new investigation into the health and economic costs of obesity. In July, Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, announced that it already had more than 80 signatories backing a campaign for a statutory ban on the advertising of fatty, salty and sugary foods during children's TV.

It now has almost 100 signatories, including just about every august UK medical foundation there is (www.sustainweb.org/labell_wp.asp).

Then in September came the real watershed moment where advertising is concerned - the Food Standards Agency report on child nutrition which claimed to be the first to have established a clear link between TV advertising and the types and amounts of food eaten generally by children. The agency's chairman, Sir John Krebs, repeated the CMO's warning that obesity was a health timebomb and announced that doing nothing was now "not an option".

An opinion poll published in The Guardian on 22 October claimed that 57 per cent of the population were now in favour of some form of a ban on food advertising to children.

And then the heat was really turned up. In the first week of November, Debra Shipley, the Labour MP for Stourbridge, had 100 backers for a Private Member's Bill to ban unhealthy food and drink ads to the under-fives.

Private Member's Bills usually die obscure and ignominious deaths, but still, it showed the way the wind was blowing. Things took a turn for the worse when Cilla Snowball, the chief executive of Abbott Media Vickers BBDO, appearing before the obesity select committee on 13 November, was forced to admit that the strategy of some advertising campaigns targeting children were based on notions of pester power, contrary to the industry's rules.

So, all in all, it was no surprise on 1 December when the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, wrote to Ofcom instructing it to look at "proposals strengthening the existing code on advertising food to children". Ofcom has begun preliminary studies and will consider submissions from interested parties later in the spring with a view to producing recommendations before the end of June.

You don't have to be overly pessimistic to suspect some tightening of the codes is inevitable. Or to see an analogy here with the inexorable move towards the outlawing of tobacco advertising. And actually, you can argue that there's a startling amount of complacency in the ad industry when it comes to this issue - far more than in the (again comparable) situation with threats to curb alcohol advertising.

On the one hand, it would be unwise to underestimate the power of the food manufacturers' lobby; on the other, though, you could argue that the anti-advertising lobby, more by luck than judgment, has pulled off a rather striking out-flanking manoeuvre. The industry can't offer concession on tightening up their act where the content of advertising is concerned because content may no longer be the issue, the campaigners are saying. It's all (or the 95 per cent of it that touts junk food) pernicious.

Strangely enough, the advertising industry does not appear to be worried though the Advertising Association now has a specialist lobbying arm called the Food Advertising Unit. It's head, Jeremy Preston, argues, as the ad industry always does across all issues like this, that advertising is all about brands and their market share rather than about driving big-picture behaviour. In other words, advertising does not influence diet.

He also insists that it's up to parents to prepare their children for the realities of the commercial world - and by and large they get it right.

You cannot blame advertising for the failings of the feckless few.

And he adds: "Yes, 95 per cent of all food advertising on children's TV may be high in sugar or fat or salt. But that's always going to be the case because the only advertisers who are advertising on TV are the ones who have products that children or their mothers are likely to want to buy. And children, whether activists like it or not, like to eat crisps and sweets and drink fizzy drinks. If you ban advertising, will children suddenly start eating lots of broccoli and bananas? No, they will not. You cannot ignore the commercial realities."

That's also the line taken by media owners - who in off-the-record brief-ings insist that Ofcom would be mad to undermine the very prosperity of the industry it has only just begun to regulate. And in any case, Ofcom, as it seeks to be more of a light-touch regulator, may invite the industry to take over self-regulation of television advertising issues.

Snowball concedes, though, that complacency is dangerous. She finds herself in an interesting position in this debate - and not just because she's been grilled by the Heath Committee. Her agency has a large number of food clients but it also has a significant number of Government accounts.

She sincerely believes that advertising should not just be part of the solution, but should take a lead role. And she remains confident that Ofcom will conduct its review "responsibly".

She concludes: "Obesity has multiple causes but we want to extend beyond that to the whole issue of the promotion of an active life and a healthy diet. So a range of clients, from PlayStation to Nike, can play a part in that. It also embraces portfolio planning in accordance with that agenda - for instance, Diet Pepsi growing at a faster rate than regular. It's also about labelling so that parents can make informed decisions. We know that some groups take an anti-advertising stance but equally we obviously believe in responsible advertising - and, yes, it's true that not all agencies are perfect all of the time. Leadership and consultation between all the stakeholders is going to be important - and there is no point in tit-for-tat accusations about who's to blame."

THE JUNK FOOD ADS THAT APPEAL TO CHILDREN

Walkers - Gary Lineker's is one of the many celebrity endorsements that annoy pressure groups

Sunny Delight - Sold not only as a healthy drink for children but as something that will make you energetic and popular too, in other words, a performance enhancer

Cheese Strings - A child pretends to his mum that he has a calcium deficiency to get her to buy the product

McDonald's - Campaigners say its ads flout the spirit of the broadcasting code

Cadbury's school sports promotion - Buy a ton of chocolate for around £70 and Cadbury's will give you a basketball worth about a tenner

REGULATIONS

Broadcasting codes are now overseen by Ofcom. The Ofcom code states that:

- Advertisements must not directly advise or ask children (defined as those under 15) to ask their parents or others to make enquiries or purchases.

- While commercial product advertising cannot reasonably be expected to perform the same role as education and public information in promoting a varied and balanced diet, it does state that advertisers should not undermine progress towards national dietary improvement by misleading or confusing consumers or by setting bad examples, particularly to children.

- Nutrition or health claims must be supported by sound scientific evidence and must be assessed by reference to the concept of a balanced diet.

- Advertising must not give a misleading impression of the nutritional or health benefits of the product as a whole. And advertisements must not encourage or condone excessive consumption of any food. For instance, while it is acceptable to show shots of someone enjoying a chocolate bar, you clearly can't show someone eating a whole box of chocolates at one sitting.

- Non-broadcast advertising is covered by the self-regulatory CAP code as administered by the Advertising Standards Authority. Specific rules regarding children (defined as anyone under 16) include:

- Advertisers should not actively encourage children to make a nuisance of themselves to parents or others and should not undermine parental authority.

- Advertisers should not exaggerate what is attainable by an ordinary child using the product being marketed.

- Advertisers should not encourage children to eat or drink near bedtime, eat frequently throughout the day or to replace main meals with confectionery or snack foods.

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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