Opinion: Perspective - The junk food ad ban debate is becoming a farce

For the past year or so the raging debate about the advertising of so-called junk foods, particularly to children, has had a distinct air of unreality about it.

As each ridiculous argument or rumoured proposal followed the last, the law-lords and lobbyists seemed to inch ever further away from the realm of hard facts and real life. So, despite all the talk around the issues, the cold reality of this week's White Paper on public health is shocking.

It's a deceptive paper. There is much sound-thinking in evidence: encouraging employers to promote health in the workplace, more effort to combat sexually transmitted diseases, a ban on smoking in restaurants and pubs serving food.

Much of it, too, is couched in relatively passive language, with an emphasis on proposals and encouragement, rather than edicts and law. Even the issue of TV advertising of junk food stops short of an imposed ban - yet. A voluntary code is demanded, but a full-blown ban is witheld for the moment.

Even so, the very threat of a ban on all junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed is farcical. It's farcical not just because it's based on clumsy thinking which is "short-term, populist and disproportionate", in the words of Jeremy Preston, the Advertising Association's director of food advertising; there is no evidence linking advertising with obesity. But it's farcical, too, because it completely ignores the economic realities of the broadcasting environment.

As the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, herself pointed out earlier this year, advertising for children's products is crucial to the financing of children's programming, meeting roughly 70 per cent of the cost. Of that, 40 per cent comes from food ads. That's a bloody great hole to try to rip out of the broadcaster's purse and there's no doubt that children and their parents would be worse off for it. Cheap imports, a preponderance of American accents. less choice and less stimulating children's programming will be the inevitable, sad result.

If the Government does restrict advertising of junk foods to children, then the 9pm watershed will inevitably be the marker. Children's viewing levels to adult programming such as soaps are in many cases higher than to dedicated children's shows; a simple ban on food advertising around children's programming would not go far enough if total avoidance was the aim.

But an estimated £200 million is spent by those same "junk food" brands, such as McDonald's, to target adults in that same pre-watershed airtime, so the ultimate impact on broadcasters' revenue base would be even greater.

A new focus on alternatives to TV advertising - again tempering a sales message with a health-conscious one - will be one inevitable consequence.

There will be few people losing sleep over the extent to which all this will affect the TV companies' finances, and promised new campaigns to promote sexual health, healthier lifestyles and so on will help replace some of the lost revenue. Even so, whole swathes of children's programming and even entire children's channels could be brought to their commercial knees by this ill-thought through scheme.

The broadcaster's voice, though, has been a relatively silent one in this debate. Surely it's time for the commercial television companies to add their collective muscle to the advertising industry's and for both sides to work together to combat the threat of a ban.

But for all commercial parties, one of the most worrying comments of the whole debate was highlighted in ISBA's response to the White Paper.

ISBA quotes a recent research paper into food advertising and promotion that found the direct influence of advertising on any given food choice is "a mere 2 per cent".

At a time when advertising effectiveness is top of everyone's agenda, this is a pretty dangerous figure to be bandying around.

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