Sweet Nothing

The Co-op’s decision to break ranks with advertisers and seek a ban on TV ‘food crimes’ against children has forced the ad industry onto the offensive – and left the Government in a quagmire.

Advertisers are used to coming under attack for the methods they use to promote products. When they are not being panned for advertising alcohol or tobacco, they are criticised for advertising to children or the way they portray women. But they may be surprised this week to discover that the latest broadside comes from one of their own.

This week, Co-op retail arm CWS will make a submission to the Independent Television Commission (ITC) calling for a ban on advertising fatty, sugary or salty foods during children’s TV viewing periods.

The move comes as the Co-op launches a £16m campaign this week through Partners BDDH to promote its food stores using animated characters created by Aardman Animation. The ads aim to dispel notions of Co-op stores being old-fashioned, dusty and run-down establishments.

It will surprise some advertisers that the Co-op, which sells many of the products whose ads it is criticising, should launch such a blistering attack on the industry. Some observers may argue that the Co-op is trying to garner publicity for its own ends: the relaunching of its stores and halting the decline in its market share.

The ITC is in the midst of reviewing its entire code of advertising standards and practice. And this autumn it will begin to invite consultation on the advertising of foodstuffs and advertising to children. To date, it has generally treated these issues separately.

While ITC deputy director of advertising Ian Blair says he is unable to comment until he sees details of the Co-op’s submission this week, he confirms that it will be considered at the appropriate stage: “We will look at what it says the issue is when we review these parts of the code.”

The submission – based on Blackmail, a public report also to be launched by the Co-op this week – will argue that dubious methods are being employed to persuade an increasingly overweight and unhealthy young population to eat junk-food.

The move follows a Co-op survey into customer perceptions of what it calls “food crimes” published last month. It found “pester power” was a major concern for customers, with 73 per cent of children asking their parents to buy sweets and crisps that have been advertised. Only 19 per cent of children stopped pestering their parents when they said “no”.

Wendy Wrigley, general manager of retail brands at the Co-op, explains why the retail chain decided to break ranks with competitors and commit itself to a voluntary ban: “We are a customer-owned retailer and we wanted to use this fact actively in our marketing. We have responded to the concerns of our customers and we hope that by approaching the ITC we will be able to quickly bring about change in the industry.”

The Blackmail report’s findings will make compelling reading for industry insiders keen to protect what they claim is their right to advertise. Against the backdrop of Food Standards Agency (FSA) research published earlier this month, which found children’s diets to be in a state of crisis, the Co-op study discovered a significant disparity between what children should be eating and the products advertised to them.

During peak-time children’s TV over a week in March, up to 60 per cent of commercials were for food and drinks. Of these, 70 per cent of products were found to contain high levels of fat, sugar or salt. On Saturday mornings, this figure rose to 99 per cent.

Government guidelines

The Government’s National Food Guide recommends that food that is high in fat, sugar or salt should account for a maximum seven per cent of a child’s diet. The guide also recommends that one-third should consist of fruit and vegetables. The FSA says it will be working with food manufacturers to establish a code of practice on the promotion of food to children.

Sue Dibb, a consultant to pressure group Sustain – the alliance for better food and farming which was commissioned by the Co-op to decipher what foodstuffs are being aimed at children – believes the findings highlight the need for tougher ITC regulations. Dibb, who is also co-director of independent watchdog the Food Commission, says: “Of the top ten most frequently advertised food brands, none could be considered to contribute to healthy eating. There is a complete miss-match between what we encourage our children to eat and what the ad industry says are the food and drink must-haves.”

But the Co-op’s ITC submission goes further than attacking the number of food ads targeted at children. It draws on research commissioned from psychologist Aric Sigman, whose work for the chain has led him to conclude that the ad industry “exploits” children.

The Blackmail report states: “Advertising… disrupts the normal process of child rearing, intervening and subverting a child’s needs and desires when they are most vulnerable and pliable… There are now concerns that the short, high-stimulation nature of TV commercials for children may have permanent effects on their brain development and attention spans.”

Sigman says the ITC must consider whether the advertising of foodstuffs to children is not only detrimental to their nutritional health but also their psychological health. “Just because children are aware that they are being advertised to doesn’t mean they are impervious to subconscious psychological damage. It doesn’t mean that a child’s taste buds won’t be permanently shaped and influenced by advertising.”

He points to the advertising of various food brands to illustrate his point, saying that the ads used to sell lollipop brand Chupa-Chups exploit children’s natural curiosity by using overt sexual symbolism. In notes made during his research, he describes one of the ads: “You see a club scene with a sexy young man and woman. The ad uses obvious phallic sexual symbolism, with a lollipop sliding smoothly in and out of the bee-stung, red-glossed lips of a slim model, in a way parents haven’t seen this side of an 18 certificate film.”

Sigman also says advertisers exploit a child’s need for nurture and protection. Of an ad for orange drink Sunny Delight, he says: “The advertiser uses a fly-on-the-wall technique showing a mother mumbling words about vitamins.”

Similarly, Robinson’s High Fruit drink uses a “mother nature” figure in a forest to push the virtues of a sugary additive to water. Sigman says: “This must be viewed in the context of a crisis in child obesity. Children can add an extra 1,000 calories a day by having these drinks instead of water.”

Parental approval

The aim of both these ads (Sunny Delight and Robinson’s High Fruit) is to impress upon the child that their mother has given her approval – that the drink is good for them, Sigman argues. While distancing himself from reference to any particular brand, he adds: “It would be just as easy to argue that adding vitamins to dog excrement or cardboard would be as healthy.”

Sigman also believes the Walkers Crisps ads – starring ex-footballer and TV sports presenter Gary Lineker – and Haribo sweet ads – featuring basketball star Martin Henlan – exploit children’s need for role models. “In this case, we see advertisers associating sporting role models with food that the athletes’ nutritionists would never recommend,” he says.

But the ad industry is unlikely to take these criticisms lying down. Following media speculation that the Swedish government plans to promote a pan-European ban on all advertising to children when it takes over the European Union presidency next year, the ad industry has mobilised itself, devoting time and resources to developing arguments and research.

Deregulation dilemma

Nor is the Co-op likely to receive Government support in its attempt to bring about a ban. A spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport says: “It is unlikely that a ban would get the support of Government. It would seem to be at odds with Government policy on the deregulation of advertising media.”

Wrigley concedes that the Government’s position may hinder Co-op’s attempts to secure a ban. But she believes its concern for the health of children may work to the Co-op’s advantage. She says: “The Government does not want to be seen to be over-regulating the industry. However, our research has convinced us that advertising is the root of demand and that the cumulative effect is unbalanced diets.”

Nick Phillips, director-general of the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising, rejects the entire notion of “pester power”. He says: “‘Pester power’ describes how children have behaved for 5,000 years. It has nothing to do with advertising.

“Advertising to children is totally legitimate. If you refer to the ITC’s code, you’ll see all sorts of safeguards to ensure children are not exploited. What is bad for a child is a bad diet, which is an issue for the product, not the ad.”

Wrigley argues that one of the main problems with the ITC regulations is the way they are interpreted. “While the code clearly sets out rules about not denigrating healthy eating, the cumulative effect of the advertising does nothing to promote nutritional balance.”

Maryke Lefebvre, head of the Advertising Association’s European information and education campaign – set up to defend the freedom to advertise to children in the light of Sweden’s looming EU presidency – denies the issue of “pester power” is high on UK parents’ agenda. “Our research showed that Swedish parents seemed much more worried about nagging because of advertising than parents in countries where advertising to children is allowed,” she says.

“I am totally opposed to the argument. A ban on just one medium – TV – will not solve the problem of nagging. If you want to stop children from consuming, you will have to stop letting them out of the house. They wouldn’t be able to look in shop windows or speak to their friends.”

Advertisers score own goal?

But, says Sigman, if TV is not such a powerful medium, why do food manufacturers continue to plough vast sums of money into the most expensive marketing outlet? He says: “Advertisers have hung themselves on this issue. The free market itself tells us that ads on TV are the most effective.”

Advertisers argue there is a freedom of choice issue at stake. Tamara Ingram, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi, which holds the Sunny Delight account, says: “I am a liberal. I believe that people should be able to advertise what is legally sold. We have got it wrong in the way that we feel we have to nanny children. They should be treated like young adults who have to live in the real world.”

Ingram insists there is no link between the nutritional health of children and advertising: “The FSA report was about how parents feed their children. You cannot blame an obesity problem on a few ads.

“An ad is an upfront public statement of desire. They are of much less concern than other forms of manipulation, such as news coverage. Children know that ads are selling tools.”

But Sigman maintains the issue should be seen in the context of protecting the rights of children. He says: “By expressing its right to freedom of expression, the ad industry is infringing children’s freedom. Society has to decide unequivocally that children’s rights are more important than lining the pockets of industry. Society will not be harmed in the slightest if this type of advertising is banned.”

Dibb agrees: “Freedom comes with responsibilities. Children are a special category and, as such, they require special treatment. Anyone with an ounce of common-sense knows that children don’t understand things in the same way as adults.”

Wrigley defends the Co-op against claims of double standards – accusations that the chain depends for a lot of its business on the very advertisers it is criticising. “Our job is to sell what people want and offer a balanced and nutritional diet. It’s not our job to nanny people, but to help give a balanced choice,” she says.

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