ASA slated for failing to stamp on slimming ads

The Advertising Standards Authority has been attacked for failing to implement its British Code of Advertising for slimming and diet products.

In a report called Slim Hopes, the National Food Alliance says 88 per cent of the press ads – including those for big brand names including Heinz’s Weight Watchers, Findus Lean Cuisine, Weetabix and Philadelphia Light – surveyed in June last year, breached the code. A Mintel study valued the UK slimming industry at 150m last year.

The NFA study is part of a series the organisation has published in the past 12 months, highlighting the issue of food advertising, which has come under intense scrutiny in both the UK and Europe. The Advertising Asso-ciation created a food committee last year to counteract the growing pressure for tighter controls.

Weight Watchers is criticised in the report on two fronts. The NFA says one of its slimming club ads states that “Sam lost three stone with Weight Watchers”. The ASA Code says: “Claims that individuals have lost exact amounts of weight should be compatible with good medical and nutritional practice, should give details of the time period involved and should not be based on unrepresentative experiences.”

The Weight Watchers Choc-olate Chip Cookie was also hauled over the coals. The NFA found that the Weight Watchers cookie had only one less calorie than the Maryland Double Choc Chip Cookie, despite claims it could aid weight loss as part of a diet.

A nutritional consultant at Heinz, Dr Nigel Dickie, claims that the Weight Watchers brand is more about healthy living and far less about weight loss, a claim clearly not reflected in the Weight Watchers slimming club ads.

The NFA claims it is not so much the ASA code that needs changing, but the enforcement of it.

The report says: “There is little disincentive for advertisers and publishers who wittingly or unwittingly transgress the Code. The ASA has no legal powers and its sanctions are usually limited to an admonishment published in the ASA’s monthly reports.”

NFA co-ordinator Jeanette Longfield adds: “Getting a ticking off from the ASA doesn’t exactly have people running in fear.”

The NFA says slimming advertising attracts “persistent offenders” and says the ASA’s ruling last May that those offenders would have their ads pre-vetted “is entirely inadequate”.

It is calling for the ASA to fine offending advertisers and publishers, as well as force the offenders to publish an equal-sized ad saying the original ads were misleading or incorrect.

An ASA spokesman says: “Many of the problems outlined in the Slim Hopes survey are not of significant enough weight to justify action. At the ASA, we draw a balance between freedom of speech and the interests of the consumer.

“We have tough guidelines on the advertising of slimming products and the views of the NFA form only a part of a wider spectrum of debate about food and advertising. The NFA exists solely to promote its own cause, whereas we are responsible for a vast array of advertising.”

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