ITV has raised fresh doubts over a blanket, pre-9pm TV ad ban for food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt, citing the government’s own impact study that has suggested a child’s daily calorie intake will fall by just 1.74 kcal.
Food and drink manufacturers will slash prices and move advertising money into other media channels that are unaffected by the proposed ban, according to Dame Carolyn McCall, ITV's chief executive.
McCall urged politicians and regulators to take an "evidence-based" approach when she spoke at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch last week and warned that commercial, public-service broadcasters such as ITV and Channel 4 will have to cut programme spend if a ban is introduced.
HFSS advertising has been forbidden during children’s programming since 2007. But other shows such as ITV’s The X Factor and Channel 4’s The Great British Bake Off are not restricted because less than 25% of the audience are children.
McCall insisted that the evidence so far suggests a wider ban on all HFSS TV ads between 5.30am and 9pm would have virtually no impact on childhood obesity.
"If there were restrictions, you have to really ask what evidence there is that it would make any difference whatsoever," she said.
Displacing ads from TV to other media channels
McCall pointed to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport's impact study, which suggests the planned ban on HFSS TV ads would lead to the "displacement" of adspend because that spend would largely end up in other media channels, including online, out-of-home and radio.
"After adjusting for displacement, we estimate children’s calorie consumption will reduce by 1.74 kcal/day or around 635 kcal per year," according to page 75 of the 135-page study, which was published last month.
McCall said: "Given that the most obese children in this country are supposed to consume more than 500 extra calories a day above the normal intake, you can see the impact assessment of the government is saying [there would be a drop of only] 1.7 calories a day per child.
"So our question is: what evidence is there that this would actually make any difference to obesity in this country?"
She added that more research will come out shortly that will show how displacing HFSS advertising from TV to other media channels was a potential unintended consequence.
"Worse than that, it would take [advertisers'] money and put it straight into price reductions in retail," McCall maintained.
"Even if they banned price promotion on these products, we know from research and from evidence that manufacturers would reduce price. So what would happen is that kids with their pocket money would actually spend more money on HFSS products."
She stressed that "childhood obesity is a big issue" and broadcasters "want to help", pointing to ITV’s support for the Daily Mile, an initiative that encourages children to walk a mile a day, which has been adopted by more than 5,000 schools around the country.
"Just getting kids to walk for a mile a day is [a way to use] about 80 calories per child per day," McCall notes.
The government did not respond directly to McCall’s comments, but a source familiar with the impact assessment pointed out that the estimated reduction of 1.74 kcal a day was an average and the potential impact is not spread evenly across the population.
Tougher TV advertising restrictions may have the greatest impact on children who are already overweight and obese, according to the source, who said a recent review has shown these children consume significantly more calories than non-overweight children after being exposed to HFSS ads.
A government spokesman said: "Childhood obesity is one of the biggest health problems this country faces. Consulting on measures to reduce children’s exposure to adverts for foods high in fat, sugar or salt is just one of many actions government is taking to halve childhood obesity by 2030."
The consultation is also examining whether to restrict price promotion of HFSS products.
Government is weighing four options
The government’s impact study suggests that broadcasters would suffer a potential hit of £111.6m a year in ad revenues.
McCall said: "The one thing you know is it will impact commercial PSBs. Both Channel 4 and ITV will end up having to make changes to programme spend."
She would not give an estimate about the likely financial impact on ITV, because she said the scope of the potential ban is unclear.
The government is weighing four options during its consultation:
- A: Do nothing and keep the existing restrictions
- B: Ban all HFSS TV ads between 5.30am and 9pm.
- C: Ban all HFSS TV and online ads between 530am and 9pm
- D: Ban HFSS online ads between 5.30 and 9pm.
Under option B, the study estimates that broadcasters would lose £1.9bn in ad revenues over 25 years and other media channels would gain £1.6bn.
Under option C, broadcasters would lose £1.9bn and online platforms £500m – a total drop of £2.4bn over 25 years. Other media channels would gain £2bn over the period.
Under the last option, online platforms would lose £500m and other media channels would gain £400m.
There would be "health benefits" – because children would consumer fewer calories and have fewer health problems – that would range from £1.4bn under option B to £1.9bn under option C and only £240m under option D.
Politicians are putting pressure on regulators to tackle obesity, because one-third of children are classed as obese at age 11.
"It’s clear from the evidence that marketing and TV advertising can be effective at influencing children's food and drink consumption, preferences and purchases," the government’s impact study says.
Transport for London banned HFSS ads on its out-of-home estate, including the London Underground and buses, on 25 February.
Read the Government's impact assessment study on HFSS advertising: https://bit.ly/2UbTWcR