Opinion: Perspective - Navigating the new threat of a junk-food ad ban

You know that cliche about the horse and the stable door? The news that Burger King is pulling its ads from children's programming is too little too late; the horse is already over the horizon.

Ofcom met this week to debate the future of junk-food advertising to children and although no pronouncement has been made yet, all the indicators are that a full ban on junk-food advertising before the watershed is the hot option. That's the worst outcome of the Ofcom meeting, but the one that now seems most likely. For the advertising and marketing industries this is the nightmare scenario. For some media owners, it's a potential death sentence.

Of course, canny advertisers (Procter & Gamble, Cadbury, Kraft, Coke ...) got out of children's airtime quite some time ago. There was writing on the wall, they read it and came up with a fresh, future-proof strategy. But some advertisers clung on and hoped that by proposing a restriction on the number of unhealthy food ads in children's programming they could ... well, carry on pretty much as usual.

So the industry's response, proposing to "reduce significantly but proportionately" the exposure of the under-tens to food and drink advertising, could be seen as a bit half-hearted. Wishy washy and self-interested, even. Has this proposal has actually strengthened resolve against junk-food advertising and driven Ofcom to the extreme? Did the industry's attempts to reach a happy compromise rile the powers that be enough to result in not only a full ban around children's shows, but a ban around all shows before 9pm?. If the advertising and marketing industries had proposed a full ban within children's programmes (even though we all know that children watch all sorts of other stuff too), maybe a watershed ban wouldn't be on the table.

If Ofcom does propose a watershed ban, then it seems inevitable that junk-food ads will be driven online, a medium every bit as attractive to most four- to nine-year-olds as TV and a medium without any of the advertising restrictions that already burden the broadcasters. Certainly for the likes of Cartoon Network and ITV, there will be a scramble to increase online ad revenues to compensate for the off-line loss. Have such consequences been thought through? Probably not by the pressure groups that can now taste the blood of a whole industry on their lips.

So BK's self-imposed ban on ads during children's TV rings rather hollow; when Ofcom pronounces BK may well be forced into even greater restrictions. BK's posturing this week seems like a PR ploy designed to belatedly garner some healthwise credentials.

Anyway, there is comfort to be found in the imminent threat of a full ban: according to the IPA, advertising has less than a 2 per cent impact on children's food preferences anyway. Which implies that an awful lot of junk-food adspend is wasted. And maybe all those junk-food advertisers are better off finding other ways of promoting their products.

It's that time of year when Campaign's offices are inundated by agency showreels, showcasing the body of work across the year. Some of these are at best patchy; some are incredibly selective (which top-ten agency sent in a reel of fewer than ten television ads? Obviously finding work to be proud of was not easy for some this year).

Some, though, are chock full of ads that are really pretty damn good; the sort of DVDs you want to take home to watch again. One of the very best of this year is Mother's. Pot Noodle, Orange Gold Spot, Boots, Schweppes, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (and I'm conveniently ignoring a rather toe-curling Coke Christmas ad you'll be seeing on a TV near you any day now); this is a reel full of ads that remind you what this industry can really do when great talent comes together. Ten years on and Mother still has it (page 20). Happy birthday.

- claire.beale@haynet.com.

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