It's time to expose this myth about 'junk food' ads
A view from Maisie McCabe

It's time to expose this myth about 'junk food' ads

Each week, it seems as though there is another one. No, I’m not talking about a shock departure.

Although I don’t think many of you anticipated Russ Lidstone’s exit from Havas Worldwide London this time last week. I don’t mean an executive creative director moving upstairs to the increasingly popular "chief creative officer" role either (but Ben Priest did do just that). What I’m talking about is a new proposal to limit advertising in one form or another.

In its bid to raise awareness (and, one assumes, funds) during Heart Month, the British Heart Foundation is calling for an end to the advertising industry’s self-regulatory set-up. If it seems a bit of a jump as a strategy to increase donations for a heart charity, well, that’s because it is.

On Monday, the BHF published some research purporting to show that 70 per cent of parents with children aged between six and 16 have been "pestered" to buy "junk food" they have seen advertised on TV (those quoted words are the BHF’s own). Likewise, the fact that children do see some ads for food or drink with high levels of salt, sugar or fat in them when watching Britain’s Got Talent is not down to a "loophole" but evidence-based regulation.

The current rules were designed to reduce the number of ads for HSSF products seen by children, not create a utopian world where everyone under 16 was hidden from Big Macs and Mars bars. Between 2005 and 2009, the reduction of HSSF ads children saw dropped by 37 per cent, satisfying Ofcom, which, incidentally, is independent. During that time, ITV also axed its after-school children’s programming from its main channel after 24 years.

The rules were not designed to create utopian world where everyone under 16 was hidden from Big Macs

Now, I’m not suggesting that children should be bombarded with commercial messages. But the actual evidence out there should be better-known. The government advisor Professor David Buckingham has suggested that the impact of TV ads on children’s food choice is very small – say, 2 per cent of the variation. It is important that advertising industry bodies communicate both facts such as these and the work they do to protect the public.

To this end, the Advertising Standards Authority campaign, created by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, that kicked off last week is a good start. But explaining that the vast majority of ads (more than 97 per cent, as it happens) fit the rules is not the only task. The industry also has to explain why the rules are what they are. This need is even more acute given Labour’s desire to increase ad regulation should it get into power.

There are obviously huge issues around childhood obesity, but kids no longer seeing McDonald’s ads during The Simpsons is not going to solve everything overnight.