Opinion: Perspective - Why adland needs to unite over foodadvertising

It has been a crucial week for advertising freedom. The ad industry joined forces to make its do-or-die proposal to Ofcom on the future of food advertising to children.

Hours, days, weeks, months, even years of intense debate have gone into addressing the threat to the advertising of food and drinks brands to children on TV.

"I think the Government will look at it and think we're a bunch of c**ts," one extremely senior, sweetly candid contributor to the submission said.

If this sounds defeatist, it's easy to see why. The whole issue has never really been about the impact of the advertising on the health of our youth.

And anything other than full surrender seems guaranteed to get Government teeth gnashing. Ofcom, many feel, is being put in an invidious position: asked to come up with a political solution to the issue rather than the right solution (are the two ever compatible?).

And won't any submission undersigned by the likes of McDonald's and Kellogg inevitably have hackles rising?

Given the intricacies of the political agenda, the industry has done a pretty fine job of finding a compromise. Agencies, media owners and advertisers this week joined forces to propose "a fourth option". This fourth option (as opposed to options one, two and three proposed by Ofcom) proposes a ban on all food and drinks advertising around terrestrial TV programmes aimed at under-nines; the (slender) lifeline is the additional proposal that food and drinks advertising should be allowed all day on the dedicated children's channels on cable and satellite, but restricted to 30 seconds an hour.

The proposal is designed to resolve the tension between pressure for an outright ad ban and the need to defend the right to advertise. Never mind the ethics, though: for companies from across all sectors of the industry, advertising food and drinks brands to children is an economic imperative. The Government's decision will mean the difference between survival or decline for some in the ad industry. So while the health lobbyists will seize on the significant levels of viewing of children's satellite channels to argue that option four does not go far enough, if these channels are to survive (and as a parent I hope they do) they will need every pound of advertising revenue they can possibly squeeze from the final agreement.

Despite the intense effort that has gone into the submission, industry executives who have spent the past few months - even years - working on a defence of these advertising freedoms can be forgiven for wondering whether their compromise proposal will even get a fair hearing from a Government intent on using advertising as a political whipping boy.

Ofcom's own research shows that "television advertising has a modest direct effect" on children's food habits, and the significance of this "is small when compared with other factors potentially linked to childhood obesity such as exercise, trends in family eating habits ... parents' demographics, school policy ..." etc, etc, etc. That particular bit of research came out two years ago and if life was as it should be, the whole debate would have been quashed then and there.

Whether the fourth option can now win a stay of execution for food and drinks advertising to kids is anyone's guess.

Certainly the industry is up against much more than facts and rational argument. Indeed, the smart advertisers saw the writing on the wall years ago, pulled out of children's programming and retargeted their brands towards an adult audience.

Of course, all compromises have their faults and as a joint industry submission, the need to satisfy the demands of all parties has made the process a thorny one. But faced with the inevitability of severe restrictions, the fourth option seems like a pretty smart compromise and one to which we should all energetically subscribe.

claire.beale@haynet.com.