Editorial: New food ad codes are a hiding to nothing for CAP

Hospital passes don't come much harder to handle than the one that was tossed to members of the Committee of Advertising Practice when it was asked to tighten the rules on the promotion of snack foods and soft drinks to children.

Irrespective of what it came up with, somebody was going to accuse it of dropping the ball. Indeed, the health lobbyists were ready with their retaliation almost the second the CAP proposals appeared. So, under government pressure to take an uncompromising stance, and from adland not to impose unnecessary restrictions, the new codes covering print, outdoor and online smack of fudge and uneasy compromise.

The good news, though, is that CAP has chosen not to acknowledge the Food Standards Agency's nutrient-profiling model, which categorises food as "healthier" or "less healthy". Its clumsy attempt to differentiate "good" food from "bad" is seen as deeply flawed.

CAP had no choice when Ofcom demanded it be incorporated in the statutory regulations governing TV. The non-broadcast sector remains self-regulated and CAP, to its credit, has asserted its independence. Nevertheless, the situation highlights the dangers inherent in a system under which the Advertising Standards Authority now polices both the statutory and self-regulatory codes.

The bad news is that there are some anomalies. Not least the ban on the use of licensed characters in food and soft drink ads targeting children. CAP sources are concerned about what would happen should a character evolve out of the advertising to take on a life of its own.

Reaction has been predictable. "Tough but fair," the Advertising Association says, while the IPA hails it as a welcome riposte to those who see advertising as the cause of obesity.

But the outcome is best summed up by a senior CAP member. "The codes won't solve the obesity problem because they can't; they'll never satisfy the health lobbyists because that's impossible," he says. "All they will do is erode advertising freedoms still further for questionable gain."

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