Is there any merit in the government’s new crackdown on HFSS ads?

Advertising’s trade bodies have been unified in their condemnation of Boris Johnson’s plans – but is it a case of 'they would say that, wouldn’t they'?

Johnson: introduced obesity strategy this week Credit: Photo by Rui Vieira - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Johnson: introduced obesity strategy this week Credit: Photo by Rui Vieira - WPA Pool/Getty Images

There was no mincing of words from the Advertising Association, IPA, ISBA and IAB UK this week: the government’s planned crackdown on the commercial freedoms of food and drink brands goes beyond a slap in the face.

The proposed regulation, which would not come into force until 2022, would apply to all TV advertising before 9pm and online, but other media channels such as out of home, radio and cinema are not included in the plans.

“They disregard the evidence – including the government’s own,” the IPA’s director general Paul Bainsfair says.

The plans are a “draconian and unwarranted action” that will hammer both news brands and small advertisers at a time they cannot afford any additional challenges, IAB UK’s chief executive Jon Mew says.

“Misguided, unfounded and totally ineffective,” is the view of the AA’s Sue Eustace.

An “an ill-thought-out policy” that “cuts across Treasury efforts to support the sector and risks jobs and livelihoods”, commented ISBA’s director general Phil Smith last week, before the plans were officially announced.

Boris Johnson may well have seen the light while in hospital, battling for his life against Covid-19, and conscious that his weight was slowing down his recovery.

This situation poses a dilemma to the ad industry in terms of its messaging on the effectiveness of advertising. According to the Food and Drink Federation, the combined impact of the various changes proposed by the government would cut just 17 calories a day from the diet of the average child. But if advertising and sales promotions make so little difference, why should brands bother with them in the first place?

The reality – which is that marketing is about encouraging consumers to choose premium brands over cheaper alternatives, as much as driving overall consumption – is a difficult one to communicate to a naturally (and correctly) sceptical public.

But even if you agree with Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Action on Sugar and Action on Salt – who said that “for the more responsible companies, this is an opportunity to build back better, making and promoting healthier options” – it’s hard to deny that this policy is something of a mess.

For example, Public Health England’s new campaign launched on 27 July is the first time the organsiation has addressed adult obesity to this extent. Encouraging overweight adults to improve their health is a widely accepted way to improve outcomes for those who contract coronavirus, an urgent priority. But the rest of the measures seem more concerned with child obesity – an important issue, but one where the benefits to society are very long term.

Then there’s the fact that the government’s comms have flagged up the additional calories people consume from restaurant meals. This feels like it seems some kind of slogan of its own – maybe “don’t eat out to help out”?

The perfect is famously the enemy of the good, though, especially at such a challenging time. So do the government’s plans have anything to recommend them?

Larissa Vince

Chief executive, Now

In what can only be described as the ultimate triumph of hope over experience, I actually thought the government might have come up with something better than this tired old strategy. Obesity is a systemic societal issue and it would take bravery, commitment and a willingness to confront historic social injustice for any progress to be made. Rather than take a step on that long, hard road, they've gone for a watershed ad ban instead. It's an insult to the nation's intelligence, it's destructive to the entire free-to-air broadcasting industry and it's based on zero evidence. So no, I can't see any merit in it.

Sam Hawkey

Chief executive, Saatchi & Saatchi

This is an important issue. It’s admirable that the government is prioritising reducing obesity levels – may it be a proper legacy long after the shadow of Covid-19 subsides. However, it doesn’t feel particularly thought-through. Advertising is already heavily regulated and a ban isn’t backed up even by the government’s own impact study. Instead, the government should tackle the real endemic problems driving obesity in the UK: a slowing down in social mobility, underfunding in community healthcare, and little real education on nutrition from the classroom and into adulthood. But perhaps admitting to these problems doesn’t make quite so catchy a headline.

Molly Coxon

Partner, Page & Page Partners

Boris Johnson is embracing his new mantra “don’t be a fattie in your fifties” with gusto. But a blanket watershed HFSS ad ban is a blunt tool previously disparaged as having the impact of giving up half a Smartie a day. With so many of us tipping the scales towards obesity, success will only come through tipping the scales of responsibility onto the voting public. The future is self-managed healthcare and joint decision-making with healthcare professionals, and it starts with us all being willing to be held accountable for our own health for as long as we can. If we want the NHS as our safety net to continue to function, we’re going to have to change our habits. Carving a huge slice out of commercially funded broadcasters will not be the recipe for success.

Dan Cullen-Shute

Founder and chief executive, Creature

So, it's worth saying up front that I'm not necessarily a fan of banning stuff. I like to think that, by and large, people are sensible, and that, given the right information, people can make the right choices. I'm not, however, always convinced that the ad industry is in the same place, particularly when it comes to regulation. Having come into the industry at the (forgive me) fag-end of tobacco advertising, and watched first hand while smart, likeable people spent serious amounts of time and money working out what they could get away with, this all feels very similar. When we shout “DON'T BAN IT YOU CAN'T BAN IT IT DOESN'T EVEN WORK ANYWAY”, we come across as toddlers having a toy confiscated – when perhaps, if we just learned to play with it sensibly in the first place, we wouldn't need to have it taken off us.

Catrin Tyler

Account director, Dark Horses, and co-founder, Home Run

I think it will have some effect, but it has to be part of larger health initiatives. We recently launched a sports nutrition bar, Home Run, with the mission of encouraging people to lead well-balanced, healthy lives. For us, "balance" is the most important part of this and we believe that allowing yourself the occasional treat alongside exercise and healthy eating is the best way of maintaining your health and exercise goals. Cracking down on HFSS ads may help reach this balance but encouraging people to be more active in their day-to-day lives will have the biggest impact.

King Adz

Chief creative officer, KidsKnowBest

It's critical that any guidance and advice considers the different circumstances of each family and the children within that household. Living active, healthy lifestyles with balanced diets is vitally important to children's wellbeing. Education and support should consider the voices and needs of each family, and be tailored to provide access and encouragement to positive choices. Our motto, “giving kids a voice”, means that to be able to do this properly, we need to ensure that the kids are healthy and active and loud — otherwise we’re just paying lip service.

Andrew Rae

Managing director, IPM

UK shoppers spend more buying food on promotion than any other European country, but the advertising ban on HFSS foods and proposed BOGOF ban misses key facts. The IPM believes that alternative, clearly more challenging options have been overlooked, such as government support in making fruit and veg a cheaper option or subsiding early-stage education around healthy living. Twenty-three per cent of reception age children are overweight or obese, and by year six this rises to 34%, so attention on the trajectory set in early years would, arguably, be a more worthwhile focus, rather than penalising an industry already on its knees.

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