Tessa Jowell gives Ofcom a diet of junk food ads

The question of ‘junk food’ advertising is guaranteed to upset someone. By Torin Douglas

Ofcom’s bulging in-tray just got bigger: culture secretary Tessa Jowell has asked the communications regulator to tighten the rules on so-called junk food and drink advertising, in the hope of avoiding the “obesity” bandwagon that was threatening to mow her down. There have been growing calls for a complete ban on such television commercials. Jowell is resisting them, but told The Guardian existing rules were inadequate “in the light of the emerging evidence about the impact of advertising”.

Ofcom – as widely predicted – is being handed lots of tricky questions the Government wants to kick into the long, and short, grass.

Got a problem? Ask Ofcom. The merger between Carlton and Granada? Give it the go-ahead and get Ofcom to fix the details. That’s why David Connolly has just taken up his post as the adjudicator on advertising sales disputes.

A possible takeover of the Telegraph Group? Ofcom will assess the “public interest” implications if Associated Newspapers or Richard Desmond put in a bid.

The future of the BBC and its charter? Get Ofcom to prepare the ground with a year-long review of public-service broadcasting.

What price the airwaves, after the Treasury’s 3G-licence bonanza (and the virtual bankruptcy of the licence-winners)? Ask Ofcom to launch a consultation on spectrum trading.

That’s on top of the day job: the tasks previously handled by the Independent Television Commission, the Radio Authority, the Broadcasting Standards Commission, Oftel and the Radiocommunications Agency – handling complaints, drawing up codes of practice, fining broadcasters, licensing radio stations and radio taxi firms, investigating takeovers and so on.

But even the ever-obliging Ofcom team might have drawn the line at being asked to solve the health problem of the moment, the “growing crisis of obesity in children”. According to some campaigners, the problem is largely the fault of food and drink advertising on TV, which is dominated by commercials for products that are high in fat, salt and sugar. Remove the ads, runs the argument, and children will no longer be so keen on cereals, sweets, soft drinks and burgers.

The bandwagon has gathered pace remarkably quickly since September, when the Food Standards Agency published a headline-grabbing report. “Adverts blamed for poor diet of children” was the The Daily Telegraph’s headline; it went on: “Television advertising encourages unhealthy eating in children and plays a key role in obesity, the Food Standards Agency said in a ‘watershed’ report on child nutrition. The study, the most comprehensive of its kind, is likely to have severe repercussions for the food industry, including the possibility of a ban on advertising food to children and health warnings on crisps and sweets.”

The momentum has been maintained by Labour MPs. Debra Shipley’s attempt to outlaw the advertising of unhealthy food to young children has been backed by many MPs and consumer groups; and David Hinchcliffe, chairman of the Commons select committee in health, has been grilling, if not deep-frying, executives from ad agencies and companies such as McDonald’s, Kellogg, Cadbury and Walkers.

We’ve been here before, of course – and these issues don’t always pan out in the way people expect. As a young hack, I was there in the Seventies when the ad industry faced a head-on attack by the Labour government’s Prices and Consumer Protection Department and the newly formed Office of Fair Trading.

The Advertising Association led the industry (not without a bit of kicking and screaming) in beefing up the Advertising Standards Authority and tightening up standards. The AA is now – through its subsidiary, the Food Advertising Unit – leading the fight on obesity, alongside the manufacturers’ Food and Drink Federation. It argues that a balanced diet and more exercise, not a ban on advertising, are the answers to the problem of childhood obesity.

Since the Seventies, public perception of advertising has swung, from the traditional distrust in its claims and a belief that it put up prices, to admiration for the brilliance of British commercials and a belief that advertising brought down prices, by improving competition and consumer knowledge. Now the pendulum seems to have swung back again.

Back in the Seventies, many people assumed that cigarette advertising would shortly be banned. In fact, it took many years – and many agreements between the industry and government – before the final Silk Cut poster brought down the curtain with a fat lady singing.

In the Seventies, many in advertising feared that alcohol ads would be next to face calls for a ban. In fact, the regime on alcohol advertising has in some ways relaxed. For the first 40 years of commercial TV, there were no ads for spirits (except after-dinner liqueurs such as Cointreau), thanks to a self-denying ordinance by the manufacturers. Since 1995, we have had commercials for whisky, gin, rum and vodka.

Toy advertising was another perennial target: Labour MPs queued up to call for a ban on the pre-Christmas glut of toy ads. The commercials are still there – albeit with clearer price warnings – despite added pressure from Brussels and campaigners within the European Union.

Now it’s food and drink that face new advertising curbs. Will children’s favourites such as Gary Lineker, David Beckham and the Tweenies get the chop from commercials?

Don’t ask Tessa Jowell and the Government. Ask Ofcom.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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