Editorial: Reid is unreasonable in his demands of adland

Phrases including the words "pot", "kettle", "glass houses" and "stones" spring to mind when talking about the Government's latest ultimatum to food and drink advertisers in the battle against obesity. Prove to the Government that your self-regulatory system has helped reduce Britain's weight problem or legislation will follow, is the essence of the warning to them by the health secretary, John Reid.

Of course, Reid must talk tough. The public clamour for a TV ban on snack-food advertising to children shows no sign of abating and no MP can afford to be out of touch with the public mood. That's equally true for advertising, which can never work if it does not have the trust of those who consume it. So it is essential the industry acts, is seen to do so, and makes clear it shares the Government's objectives.

Nevertheless, Reid's timetable is unrealistic. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since the obesity debate frequently generates more heat than light, much of it fuelled by national press coverage that has at times bordered on the hysterical. This is evident from a survey claiming more than three-quarters of the public said they would support banning junk-food ads from children's TV. No matter that the most-watched children's programmes are on the ad-free BBC.

Reid is right to aim for change in children's health and lifestyles but wrong to expect advertising to play a disproportionate part. The fact is children generally love snack food and hate vegetables. Even the most persuasive advertising in the world will need time to alter their preferences.

Also, it's a bit rich for Reid to demand advertisers put their house in order while state schools' meals remain little short of a nutritionist's nightmare. It's hard not to disagree with Jamie Oliver's claim that schools are feeding children "scrotum-burger shite". While some schools spend as little as 30p per lunch and even parents on low incomes shun free meals for their children because they trust the quality so little, the obesity problem will endure.

With so many examples of advertising supplying the vital magic to transform a brand, outsiders can be deluded into believing that it has mystical powers. It doesn't. And while food advertisers and agencies must keep excesses in check, their ability to reduce obesity shouldn't be exaggerated.

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