Adland must stay one step ahead of the boo boys
A view from Maisie McCabe

Adland must stay one step ahead of the boo boys

Is the advertising industry to blame for childhood obesity?

Many members of the public think it is. Lots more believe that adland should at least bear some of the responsibility. Since the Advertising Association’s Lead conference in January last year, the industry has promised to start taking the initiative on this sort of thing. 

Combating childhood obesity often comes back to food high in sugar, salt or fat. Rules prohibiting ads that promote such products around children’s TV came into force in 2007 – a move that unintentionally sped up the decline of children’s TV on the main ITV and Channel 4 channels. This time last year, The Independent provoked outrage with an investigation that found ads for unhealthy foods alongside YouTube vlogs targeted at young people. Just this week, I was served a Hula Hoops ad while watching Zoella (for research purposes).

Over the past 12 months, the Committee of Advertising Practice has been carrying out a pre-consultation exercise to find out how the industry and other interested parties want it to target this discrepancy. I understand that CAP is preparing to publish a consultation on the options early next month. Industry sources tell me that online companies such as YouTube are amenable to the idea of HSSF rules being consistent across media. 

There is an opportunity to take the lead here. At the end of February, the government confirmed that it had delayed the publication of its childhood obesity strategy until the summer. This is because of the complexity of the issue, according to the Department of Health, which says it is determined to get things right. 

After insisting that a new sugar tax was not on the agenda, the government seems to have warmed towards it or a similarly "robust" move over the past couple of months.

You could argue – and some people probably will – that restricting advertising around children’s or youth content does not go far enough. Chocolate and crisp brands can happily buy airtime around programming likely to be enjoyed by the whole family, such as The X Factor. A research paper published in 2012 found that the 2007 rules did not reduce the amount of such ads seen by children and instead increased the frequency among other viewers.

The DoH is right that this is a tough nut to crack. Bringing non-broadcast rules in line with the restrictions for broadcasters makes complete sense. If anything, it is probably overdue. But the anti-advertising MPs and interest groups are hardly likely to stop there. Adland has been very successful in regulating itself since the 60s. Now that it has gained some momentum by taking the initiative, the industry should not stop here. What else needs fixing?