Live Issue - Another twist in the saga of the junk-foodad ban

Ofcom now has the final submissions on this critical issue. John Tylee considers whether the industry has gone far enough.

Hamburgers sizzling on the grill do not come any hotter than the issue of TV advertising's purported role in the rising levels of obesity among Britain's youngsters.

Last week, another chapter in the story of this protracted controversy ended when Ofcom accepted the last of the 1,300 submissions sent as part of a ten-week consultation over proposals to restrict the number of snack food and fizzy drink TV ads targeting children.

A lot rides on what the watchdog decides. And not just the fate of the annual budget of almost £600 million that food and drink manufacturers spend on TV each year. Ofcom's credibility as a regulator is on the line.

Ofcom's challenge is being made even tougher because everybody wants to pull it in a different direction. It faces enormous pressure from government departments at odds with each other on what should be done and lobby groups that have become much more sophisticated and (according to their critics) aggressive in the way they operate. In the eye of the storm is the question of whether all junk- food advertising should be banned until after 9pm as some health and children's organisations are demanding.

In their collective submission to Ofcom, the Advertising Association, the IPA, ISBA and the Food and Drink Federation have presented what they describe as a "cocktail" of Ofcom's already published thoughts on restricting the content and number of commercials aimed at children.

The industry bodies claim this would achieve Ofcom's declared aim of reducing the impact of such advertising to children under the age of ten by 50 per cent without confining it all to late evening. Moreover, they believe it would allow for a "painless" migration of snack food advertisers into non-broadcast media. "We knew we'd have to give ground over content and volume," an industry source admits. "It may not be the best solution, but it's the least worst."

As Ofcom policy teams begin sifting the submissions in advance of a statement setting out the new rules to be published next summer, industry watchers wait to see if the regulator's nerve will hold.

This will not be easy. Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, has emphasised the need for any new rules to balance health benefits with the economic impact. But industry leaders are furious with the stance being taken by the Food Standards Agency. They cite Tesco's decision to snub the FSA's plan for "traffic light" labelling of processed foods as evidence of policy-making on the hoof, with no science to underpin it.

And they are enraged that the FSA should be calling for a ban on food and drink ads before 9pm. "It's outrageous that a government body should behave in this way," one complains. "The FSA has no competence in broadcasting and what it proposes is in direct conflict with government policy."

The fear is that Ofcom will be bounced into imposing Draconian measures by ministers looking for a quick fix. Advertising, the FSA's critics argue, is being made a scapegoat to placate public demands, when the real problem is the amount of time children spend piling on the pounds in front of TV and computer screens.

Indeed, there is some alarm that if Ofcom is seen not to go far enough, ministers could give their backing to the Private Member's Bill introduced by the Labour MP Mary Creagh, which seeks to ban the marketing of any foods deemed "detrimental to the health, well-being or educational performance" of children.

In fact, many large food and drink advertisers have already either stopped advertising to young children or given their products more adult appeal. Coca-Cola agreed more than two years ago not to target ads at European children under 12; Kraft has a similar policy.

Meanwhile, Procter & Gamble has abandoned the "once you pop you can't stop" advertising, devised by Grey London for its Pringles brand, because of its high appeal to children. It has been replaced by a campaign targeting teenagers and twentysomethings under the theme "pass the Pringles".

Cadbury will not advertise to children aged under eight when they form the majority of the audience. "It was a very conscious decision," a source close to the company says. "Cadbury could see the way things were going."

Whether all this stems from purely altruistic motives is an open question. US-based multinational food companies in particular are anxious to avoid doing anything that will leave them vulnerable to legal challenges. One is Kellogg, which is facing a class action against Massachusetts for allegedly running ads causing parents to buy, and children to eat, unhealthy food.

All this is bound to fuel the debate about whether the battle over food advertising to children is more about politics than about health. The Advertising Association adds weight to this argument by pointing out that food advertising is in long-term decline, its share of total adspend having dropped from 18 per cent to 7.5 per cent since 1990.

"Restricting such advertising is bollocks," a senior member of the rule-making Committee of Advertising Practice remarks. "It won't make a jot of difference. Ofcom can't please everybody. We can only hope it does the right thing and doesn't succumb to this nonsense."

Ofcom knows well enough that it has been thrown a hospital pass. "There are so many things we will have to balance, from the effect on the broadcast sector to huge health and lifestyle issues," an insider admits. "Every representation we have received has its own agenda. It's going to be very tricky." You can say that again.

THE INDUSTRY PROPOSALS
- No more cartoon characters, celebrities, pop bands, the latest film characters or collectible gifts to be used in ads targeting children

- No more advertising of any branded foods during children's programming on terrestrial TV

- Advertising of food and drink to be limited to 30 seconds per hour all day on dedicated children's channels, including GMTV Kids on Saturday and Sunday mornings

WARDING OFF A BAN
2003 December: Culture secretary Tessa Jowell asks Ofcom to consider proposals for strengthening code on advertising food to children.

2004 July: Ofcom research report claims total ban would be ineffective.

November: Public Health White Paper calls on Ofcom to tighten rules on broadcast advertising to children.

2005 June: Labour MP Mary Creagh reintroduces Private Members' Bill calling for total ban on junk-food ads.

2006 March: Ofcom's consultation sets out three choices covering the scheduling of ads and their volume.

National Heart Foundation threatens court action against Ofcom for ruling out further consultation on advertising junk food before 9pm.

June: Ofcom to re-examine the 9pm watershed. NHF drops legal action. IPA attacks Food Standards Agency's call for ban on junk-food ads before 9pm as "unjustified".

July: Coalition of food, soft drink and ad industries submit compromise proposals to Ofcom to avoid total ban on junk-food ads before 9pm.