Food advertisers unite to pre-empt child obesity ban

LONDON - Food advertisers could be asked to fund a Portman Group-style initiative to combat obesity and pre-empt any government interference on advertising to children.

Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which handles advertising for Walkers, Pepsi and Sainsbury's, has been asked by the Advertising Association's Food Advertising Unit to recommend steps that will prevent a ban on advertising being imposed.

Among the ideas on the table is that the food industry pays either for all or part of a campaign that would promote healthy eating and lifestyles.

This follows calls by Tessa Jowell, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, for the industry to show that it "can keep its own house in order".

AMV, whose television campaign for Walkers crisps featuring Gary Lineker was singled out for particular criticism in the Commons

health select committee report on obesity last week, is the first of several agencies to be contacted by the AA's Food Advertising Unit.

Other members, including DDB London, Publicis, J. Walter Thompson and Mc-Cann Erickson, are likely to join AMV in "brainstorming" the problem.

Insiders expect that the Government will be asked to share the cost of the initiative.

Such a move would mean that a formal pitch will be called by COI Communications. However, COI said it had not yet received an approach.

An AA insider explained: "At this very early stage, it's important that the industry is being seen to do it and that it is seen to be the catalyst for the initiative.

"We hope this will galvanise food advertisers. When you are staring down the barrel of

a gun, it's more likely you'll set aside your differences. Just going on as we are is not an option."

Last week, the Commons health select committee stopped short of recommending a ban on television food advertising to children, but warned the industry that it needed to start acting in a responsible manner.

The food industry spends £500 million annually on advertising. Of that figure, £178 million was spent on advertising chocolate, sweets, crisps and snacks in 2002.

AMV has extensive experience in promoting responsible behaviour through its advertising. Its assignments have ranged from government road safety campaigns to an anti-binge drinking brief

from Diageo.

The Portman Group was set up in 1989 to promote sensible drinking habits. Its advertising, created by M&C Saatchi, is funded by the major alcohol producers.