EDITORIAL: FSA puts food ads on trial once again

Nothing causes the industry to wrestle with its collective conscience more frequently than the issue of snackfood advertising to children. Adland's ambivalence is easily explained - as communications professionals, they see the proliferation of children's TV channels as a means to reach a significant but faddish audience. But as parents, they're aware of the dangers of their own children being bounced into unhealthy diets by an abundance of junk-food advertising.

All of which makes it hard for agencies and their food manufacturing clients to provide a robust answer to Food Standards Agency claims that its newly commissioned research has established a direct link between the TV advertising of snackfood and rising levels of obesity among children.

Such "conclusive" evidence is regularly presented and usually succeeds in generating more heat than enlightenment. What's certain is that nobody in advertising would want their industry to be responsible for a generation of couch potatoes. To succeed would be to destroy the industry's bond of trust with consumers.

Nevertheless, it's essential the industry remains united against any misguided attempt by the FSA to move the Government towards a ban on the TV advertising of food aimed at children. With a bureaucratic zeal that threatens to overtake common sense, the FSA has dispatched officials to Sweden to see how its ban on TV advertising to under-12s is working. It needn't have bothered. Sweden's ban is no more than an article of faith based on long-discredited research and perpetually undermined by ads beamed in from beyond its borders.

To make matters worse, the FSA may push for the introduction of "health warnings" on packets of savoury snacks and sweets. What nonsense. Children will ignore them and adults will regard them as an insult to their intelligence.

Heaven forbid the FSA is following Brussels bureaucrats in the mistaken belief that the advertising of brands is harmful when the real problem is the abuse of them. Would anybody seriously suggest banning car ads because car drivers kill hundreds of people every year?

Obesity among children is growing for several reasons. The pace of modern life, the death of family meal-times, the sale of thousands of school playing fields and the rise of the school run are all to blame. Singling out advertising because of its high profile when its guilt is unproven would be a superficial answer to a far deeper problem.

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