Are the new HFSS rulings an opportunity for the industry to self-regulate?

Industry insiders discuss the pros and cons of adapting the Portman Group model.

Government regulations on HFSS products are intended to protect a young audience (Getty Images)
Government regulations on HFSS products are intended to protect a young audience (Getty Images)

Globally, 11 of the largest food and drinks producers including the Coca-Cola Company, Kellogg’s, Mars, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, have agreed not to advertise to children under the age of 13 in the following categories: chocolates, confectionery, potato crisps, soft drinks and ice creams.

The manufacturers have agreed to further restrict advertising to children of products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), which means children globally will see less ads for products that don’t meet certain nutritional criteria.

The new raft of self-regulatory controls, launched on 3 August, were spearheaded by the World Federation of Advertisers as part of the International Food & Beverage Alliance 2021 Global Responsible Marketing policy, which replaces previous rules agreed in 2014.

While the rules do cover the UK, domestic rules will be tighter than this, as a result of changes to the law. In the UK, HFSS marketers are looking to the example set by alcoholic drinks manufacturers, which collectively agreed to abide by the Portman Group’s Code of Practice, introduced 25 years ago. The code applies to the naming, packaging, marketing and promotional activity around alcoholic drinks.

Should HFSS be answerable to its own Portman Group-style industry code?

Matt Lambert

CEO, the Portman Group

If another industry was considering following the Portman Group’s model, they would need to be clear that it’s not a soft option, and can’t be used as a tactic to avoid a regulator. The Portman code has been a force for good in terms of making sure that those who transgress it have to get in line with it. So the rest of the industry is not tarnished by the behaviour of a few, and there is a really effective mechanism for keeping the industry true.

We provide an advisory service, guidance and also training to producers and their marketing departments, so that we can give guidance on what's likely to be acceptable to the panel.

A further advantage to the Portman Group model, as opposed to government legislation, is that changes can be made to the code in a relatively short time frame. This year alone, we've issued new guidance on the use of CBD in alcoholic products, along with advice and guidance on hard seltzers.

We can react swiftly and flexibly to those kinds of changes when new market trends and changes to culture and society arise, so there are benefits to self-regulation. It's not for me to say to the food sector what they should do, but it works very well in our sector. Therefore, there may be some lessons for them.

Emma Sherwood-Smith

Marketing director, Carlsberg Group

For alcohol, the assembly of industry peers in self-regulatory groups and advisory formats have certainly assisted cross-industry collaboration and support. However, alcohol brands are all united by one format of product – drinks – and I anticipate an HFSS organisation or business assembly, whatever form it takes, would need to be much larger and multi-faceted due to the wide range of products HFSS is anticipated to apply to.

Yelena Gaufman

Strategy partner, Fold7

Drinks companies have also set their own regulations that are even stricter. For example, the Diageo Marketing Code is more stringent than the Portman Group’s rules. Establishing the equivalent of a Drinkaware – the Portman Group’s educational and campaigning arm – is an interesting idea, to create a council to help navigate the complexity of the industry.

The equivalent of a Drinkaware for HFSS would clearly need to be working with schools, parents and generally with culture to change perceptions or create a better relationship with food. We don't have a good relationship with food, on both the excessive and restrictive sides. It's so horribly complex; but what an interesting challenge it is to create a better relationship with food.

If HFSS marketers and agencies banded together as a group, to say let's identify the problems, and put our heads together and try to find a way to correct some of the bad behaviour, fix some of the knowledge gaps, and simplify the complexity, that would have huge impact.

Phil Smith

Director general, ISBA

The beauty of the Portman Code is that you are looking at an industry which is more homogeneous. With HFSS, you haven't got the same commonality of interest as alcoholic drinks.“In HFSS, not only are olive oil and chocolate lumped together in the same category, you’ve also got retailers who are selling baskets of food, plus the food-delivery operators like Just Eat and Deliveroo selling takeaway food, much of which is going to fall foul of the regulation. We've already seen initiatives like The Daily Mile, and Eat Them to Defeat Them, which have been heavily supported by the broadcasters, with some retail support as well.

But I don't think we'll see another Portman-style body emerge. The areas where there is the most overlap are in areas of proactive code-setting, although we've been overtaken by events here in the UK. In that area of positive campaigns, I certainly can't see an ‘’ being something that will take flight.

Zoe Novick

Client partner, Zenith

The Portman Group is like the alcohol industry’s referee. If all brands are on the ‘playing field’ it helps to make sure that each team is playing fairly. There’s a lot to be said for what it offers and the benefits of something similar with the wider FMCG category.

Some HFSS restrictions have always been around, the heightened tightening recently in HFSS just reflects today’s landscape and the need for more considered communications. In that regard, alcohol brands have been familiar with this balance and the parameters put in place to protect our ‘moral compass’, but as such it just becomes the norm.

There is a lot to be learnt from alcohol brands: greater restrictions just means levelling the playing field. For alcohol, whether it’s 18+ targeting, or age representation, watersheds and proximity-distance from schools, there is an opportunity to drive more meaningful and relevant content – and turning up at the right place and the right time is essential.

Katie Jackson

Chief operating officer, TBWA\London

No. Because these are responsible advertisers we’re talking about, and we should treat them as such. They are continually reformulating and developing their products, reviewing their packaging and seeking new ways to use their market position for good with their retail partners.

Kevin McNair

Marketing director, KP Snacks

In this instance, government has decided to intervene. Therefore, the Portman Group-type initiative is not required. This is both in terms of what we will be able to say and where.

Liam Newton

Former vice-president of marketing, Carlsberg

The codes of the Portman Group are trained into alcohol marketers. Anybody that works within the alcohol sector is constantly thinking about marketing in a responsible way.

The principles of responsible marketing are the same, in both HFSS and alcohol, and there are definitely some things that can be learned from the way that the alcohol industry has come together over the past 30 years.

From my own personal experience at Bacardi and Carlsberg, I've never felt, and I don't think the agencies have ever felt, inhibited creatively by the Portman Code. It doesn't inhibit building your brand, because the key focus is actually on what you want your brand to stand for.

The view of the industry would be that it has had a positive impact on industry behaviour and in turn, perceptions of the industry.

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