HFSS ban given the green light – though loopholes exist

SMEs will be exempt from the ban, and brand-only advertising will be permitted.

Cadbury: the Mondelez brand will be one of the biggest advertisers to be affected by the ban
Cadbury: the Mondelez brand will be one of the biggest advertisers to be affected by the ban

The government is pressing on with a ban on unhealthy-food ads online and on TV before the 9pm watershed, acording to reports – but there will be significant exceptions under it. 

Small and medium businesses will be exempt from the ban, with those employing 249 or fewer employees permitted to advertise foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS).

Restrictions for online ads will not be subject to a total ban, with those terms applying only to paid-for advertising, according to The Telegraph. Additionally, brand-only advertising – meaning ads that do not feature any HFSS products – will not be affected.  

The newspaper added that the restrictions will be enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, which will order the removal of ads that break the rules, and potentially sanction repeat offenders. 

The new measures are to be brought in from 2023. 

Certain specific products that fall under the technical definition of HFSS will also be exempt, The Guardian reported, such as honey and jam.

Sugar-free drinks such as Coca-Cola Zero Sugar and Diet Coke will be exempt; this means that Coca-Cola's advertising could be minimally affected, as it has not prominently featured Coca-Cola Original in it ads for several years.

Coke's rival Pepsi advertises only its sugar-free Pepsi Max variant in the UK, suggesting its advertising would be unaffected.

Another product that could become more prominent in advertising is McDonald's chicken nuggets, which are not classed as HFSS, according to The Guardian.

Sue Eustace, public affairs director for the Advertising Association, said the body was “dismayed”. 

She said: “This means many food and drink companies won’t be able to advertise new product innovations and reformulations and larger food-on-the-go, pub and restaurant chains may not be able to tell their customers about their menus. 

“Content providers – online publishers and broadcasters – will lose vital advertising revenue to fund jobs in editorial and programme-making. We all want to see a healthier, more active population, but the government’s own analysis shows these measures won’t work. Levelling up society will not be achieved by punishing some of the UK’s most successful industries for minimal effect on obesity levels.”

Kate Halliwell, chief scientific officer at the Food and Drink Federation, said: "We are disappointed that the government continues to press ahead with headline-chasing policies which will undermine existing government policies, principally the reformulation programmes to reduce calories, sugars and salt and portion sizes.

“The proposals would make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions, in line with the government’s own targets; for example, Cadbury would not be able to advertise their 30% reduced sugar Dairy Milk.

“Not only do the proposals signal a lack of joined-up policy, the implementation periods for both advertising and promotional restrictions do not give businesses enough time to prepare for the changes. While we are disappointed that government is pressing ahead with its plans for the bans, we will continue to work with government constructively to ensure the policies are practical.”

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 leaves primary school overweight, or obese, and almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity.

On Thursday the IAB described the plans as "blunt and ill-informed", adding: "This... policy will not only do untold damage to the digital advertising industry, it creates the illusion of progress being made on the critical issue of childhood obesity, when in fact the evidence shows that banning ads online will achieve next to nothing in terms of reversing children's obesity rates."

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.

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