If the rules on the promotion of food and soft drinks are not broken, why are Britain’s advertising watchdogs intent on fixing them? Fears about obesity levels are not reflected in the number of complaints about food ads. And even some of the food and drink industry’s sternest critics suggest that inducing manufacturers to focus their marketing on sugar-free variants is more important than toughening the ad codes.
The expansion of online activity by food and drink companies is cited as the main reason why the Committee of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standards Authority are commissioning a review – their first since the CAP’s remit was extended to online three years ago – to ensure the rules are fit for purpose, particularly when it comes to protecting children.
Regulators also believe there’s a need to address criticisms that the statutory broadcast code allows food and drink advertisers to get away with less than they do under the self-regulatory non-broadcast system and that the two sets of rules must be more closely aligned. Meanwhile, the industry faces constant pressure from politicians as a result of ear-bending lobbyists.
James Best, chairman, Committee of Advertising Practice
"My gut feeling ahead of the review is that there’s little inappropriate food advertising reaching children online. There are no presumptions on our part, but we need to know exactly what’s going on and that the regulations are up to speed. Also, there’s a feeling among some people that food and drink advertisers are getting away with too much away from TV because of the differences between the self-regulatory and broadcast codes. Although there’s very little government pressure on us, we need to be doing more because MPs have to respond to the concerns brought to them by lobby groups."
Ian Twinn, director of public affairs, ISBA
"The rules don’t need toughening because the Advertising Standards Authority’s figures suggest they are working. But they do need to be examined as the digital environment changes. Commissioning an independent review is important because, when it comes to the protection of children, a lot of opinions get presented as facts. If changes need to be made – and it may be that we need to look at some fringe areas like online games for children that were previously beyond regulation – they need to be made on the basis of real evidence and not somebody’s political interpretation of it."
Malcolm Clark, co-ordinator, Children’s Food Campaign
"The Committee of Advertising Practice and the Advertising Standards Authority are taking baby steps forward and only because we’ve been kicking up a fuss. Food and soft-drink manufacturers and their agencies continue flouting the regulations. We’ve been telling the ASA and CAP for the past two years that they need to act and we hope that, when the review is complete, it won’t be just kicked into the long grass. There are a number of remaining grey areas, such as ‘advergames’, and we want to see consistency across all forms of media through a closer alignment of the broadcast and non-broadcast codes."
Philip Circus, legal affairs director, Institute of Sales Promotion
"I’d be astounded if there were any major changes in the codes governing food and drink advertising. For one thing, they aren’t necessary. For another, it would suggest that the issue hasn’t previously been addressed properly. One of the dangers of self-regulation is that this becomes overly concerned with ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians. Having been involved in the industry since the dawn of time, I’ve seen all this enough times previously to know that we need to be robust in our defence of self-regulation and never to take political threats too seriously."