Advertisers and industry heads have reacted with “dismay” to the UK government’s announcement that it plans to press ahead with an advertising ban for food and drink high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) completely online and before the 9pm watershed on TV.
The news, which was disclosed in a briefing document published to accompany the Queen’s speech on Tuesday, said the government will also restrict promotions on HFSS in retailers from April 2022.
Ad industry chiefs expressed disappointment because they had raised questions during the consultation about the evidence to show that advertising restrictions, particularly if they were imposed in isolation without other measures, would reduce childhood obesity.
The government has been considering a crackdown on so-called junk food ads for several years and Boris Johnson accelerated plans after he was hospitalised with coronavirus, which he blamed partly on his weight.
Research by the NHS has found that one in three children leave primary school overweight, or obese, and almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity.
The Department for Health and Social Care ran a rapid consultation for six weeks to try and understand the impact of introducing a total ban on online HFSS advertising.
Phil Smith, director-general of ISBA, representing UK brand advertisers, said: “As their own evidence demonstrated, a blanket ban does next-to-nothing to tackle obesity whilst damaging business, risking jobs and restricting adult freedom of choice.
“If, after months of engagement, government has chosen to ignore more sophisticated, better targeted, cheaper and more proportionate ways to protect children online, then business will be forgiven for thinking that this government cares less for serious policy than it does cheap headlines.”
Advertising Association chief executive Stephen Woodford said: “We are dismayed at the government’s decision, announced in today’s Queen’s Speech, that it is going to press ahead with a 9pm watershed and total online ban on HFSS advertising.
“The government’s own evidence shows that such measures will be ineffective in tackling obesity. The country needs balanced, consistent and well-evidenced policy interventions that will make a positive difference. The 9pm watershed and online ban will not reduce obesity levels, but will damage business and innovation and put jobs at risk.”
Jon Mew, chief executive at IAB UK, said: “We strongly disagree with the ban and the government’s rationale for it. We recognise that childhood obesity is a significant challenge that must be addressed, and our view remains that an online ad ban is not the solution for this complex problem.”
Mew called the action “archaic” and said it “disregards prevailing evidence relating to the causes of obesity and ignores smarter, digital-led solutions put forward by advertising’s regulatory body that could further limit children’s exposure to digital advertising in a proportionate and targeted way.”
He added: “In fact, the government’s own evidence shows that an online ad ban will cut children’s calorie intake by a minuscule 2.84 calories per child, per day. What’s more, while the UK already has some of the strictest rules in place around online HFSS advertising and children’s exposure to HFSS ads online has fallen dramatically as a result, obesity rates have continued to rise.
“This fundamentally undermines the assumed link between ad exposure and childhood obesity – a fact that the government has chosen to ignore in favour of blunt and disproportionate action.”
Broadcasters have previously pointed out that a Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport impact study in 2019 suggested a ban on HFSS TV ads would reduce a child’s daily calorie intake by just 1.74 calories.
Advertising chiefs had previously warned about HFSS restrictions at the Reset conference in January when Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, signalled in a speech that a ban was likely.
Experts have warned of the financial impact of HFSS restrictions on media owners. ITV’s latest annual report said it could suffer an estimated 4% decline in ad sales from 2023 – equivalent to about £65m a year. ITV declined to comment.