Advertisers face feeding frenzy

In war, a US senator once remarked truth is always the first casualty. The obesity issue is certainly a war of sorts – a media-fuelled one – and the facts relating to it are increasingly the casualties.

In reflecting our readers’ interests, this magazine can scarcely claim to be a neutral party to the conflict. Many must by now have formed the view they are being made a scapegoat, and be seething at the injustice of it.

They are right to feel alarmed. At no time over the past generation has the UK advertising industry faced such a serious challenge.

Though food and soft drinks are only the latest categories to feel the domino effect of regulatory pressure and political manipulation, they are by far the largest and most important. Of course, there is nothing new in the criticism of ‘pester power’ and other, claimed, ‘subversive’ promotional techniques. But the crescendo of criticism has been steadily growing over the past two years. Arguably, a pivotal point has been reached with the publication last week of the House of Commons Health Select Committee report on obesity.

The bad news for the industry is that some sort of government-inspired intervention is now inevitable, the deadline being 2007. Whether this amounts to relatively innocuous ‘traffic lights’ carried on food packaging (alerting buyers to its healthiness), or something altogether more draconian will in part be decided by the advertising industry’s conduct from here on.

The findings of the committee are by no means entirely unfavourable to the industry. If a cynical food business comes in for a (justifiable) roasting, then so does everyone else: derelict parents, an inadequate health service, apathetic schools, and spineless governments. It is precisely in its refusal to oversimplify a complex social and political problem that this extremely influential committee has thrown the industry a lifeline of sorts.

Because what it has effectively done is pre-empt a comprehensive ban on food advertising, despite the obvious political attractions of such a ‘quick-fix’ solution to any hard-pressed ‘caring’ government in search of some votes.

Instead, we are likely to see a White Paper later this year which, while perhaps threatening some restrictions on junk-food advertising during peak children’s time viewing, will mainly fall back on the rhetoric of self-restraint – and self-regulation.

Nevertheless, the advertising industry and food business should be under no illusions about the penalties for failing to act collaboratively. If, for example, the forthcoming broadcast advertising code, operated by the Advertising Standards Authority, stops short of addressing the problem seriously, or if the ASA is less than vigorous in its enforcement of the curbs, food advertisers, indeed advertisers generally, will find themselves wide open to drastic legislative restraint.

In the meantime, the industry could do with some leadership lessons. Niall FitzGerald’s quip, at the annual Advertising Association lunch, about being forced to take on the presidency for a further year because of the lack of a suitable candidate points to a deeper truth.

Stuart Smith, EditorTorin Douglas, page 21, Cover Story page 26 and George Pitcher page 31

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