On 27 July the government announced its intention to bring in a 9pm watershed on high fat, salt and sugar food and drink advertising on television and online. Not only that, but the government went further than many had anticipated by also including its aim for a consultation on introducing a total HFSS advertising restriction online.
This news was widely covered in the media as a "junk food" advertising ban. While this phrase is glib, snappy and, at first glance, easily understood by the public, it is also fundamentally incorrect and misleading.
Products classed as high in fat, sugar or salt according to the Government's Nutrient Profile Model, and which could therefore be covered by the ban, cover a variety of commonplace kitchen items. These are products found in most kitchens and cupboards, ranging from cooking and salad oils, margarines and spreads, cheese, stock cubes, tomato ketchup, soy sauce... the list goes on. This is not simply a question of banning burgers, pizza and fried chicken, as many would have you believe.
But these rules would not end there. The online aspect of the proposals may well affect small businesses that use online advertising to reach their customers. This could range from takeaways to cafes, cheesemakers, chocolatiers and small-scale confectioners, to condiment makers and local bakers. While these proposed rules may have the best of intentions in trying to reduce obesity, surely these everyday scenarios were not in the mind of government when they formed this policy? All this at a time when they are emphasising at every turn, and in every policy, their wish to grow the economy and boost business. There could hardly be a worse time for such a measure.
UK advertising rules on HFSS foods advertising are already among the strictest in the world and restrict the advertising of HFSS food or drink products in and around TV programmes commissioned for, or likely to appeal to, children. The rules for all other media, including online, restrict HFSS ads to media where under-16s make up more than 25% of the audience. Yet despite these rules, childhood obesity rates have continued to rise. This proves that the issue of obesity is far more complex and nuanced than is often acknowledged. Issues such as education, deprivation and ethnicity have a greater role to play in this debate, but they would require considerable effort and money on the part of authorities to rectify.
It is also important to note that the advertising industry supports efforts to reduce obesity and that the caricature among some campaigners of an industry simply out to make a profit is unfounded and unfair.
In fact, advertising can be part of the solution to obesity by promoting healthy lifestyles, as the recent "Eat them to defeat them" TV campaign (by Adam & Eve/DDB) to encourage children to eat vegetables shows. The 2019 version of this campaign saw over 650,000 children eating more vegetables and 18 million more units of vegetables sold – enough for an extra portion of vegetables on every family dinner table in the UK for each week of the campaign. Another example is Get Smart, Outside in the out-of-home sector, which offers public authorities up to £15m of space to use advertising to promote healthy lifestyle choices for children.
Ultimately, (to use an old analogy) the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and these new rules will be judged on their effectiveness. And this is in doubt. The government's own research on a 9pm TV watershed last year found that such a measure would remove only 1.7 calories per day from children's diets. This equates to half a Smartie per day, a minute amount compared with the £1bn loss this could cause to the economy.
There are, and will never be, any easy answers to the problem of obesity, but singling out advertising is both unfair and, as a solution to this crisis, will be ineffective. It's high time that this was recognised and also high time that the rhetoric of "junk food" advertising was debunked once and for all.
Matthew Evans is head of corporate affairs at the Advertising Association
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