Anger rather than surprise must be the dominant feeling of the marketing industry as it surveys the wreckage left by the Government’s drastic proposals on ‘junk food’ advertising in the Health White Paper, published this week.
Most of that anger is focused on being made an easily demonised scapegoat for what is a complex social problem in which advertising actually plays a relatively small part. As the Advertising Association succinctly puts it: the ban proposed on post-watershed advertising is a ‘short-term, populist and disproportionate response which is unlikely to have much impact on the problem of obesity’.
But forewarned is forearmed, and the fact is the Government’s proposals have been nothing if not entirely predictable. Politicians (like journalists it must be said) prefer firm headlines: they give the impression of wise and masterly activity, especially in complicated areas of social policy that elude straightforward analysis, let alone action. In fact, the threat of a government-sponsored ban is actually rather foolish, for at least two good reasons.
First of all – and there’s nothing wrong in stating the obvious now and then – it won’t work. This is not simply the view of this magazine, it is also that of Ofcom, the media super-regulator instituted last year at the Government’s bidding. Ofcom, by contrast to the simplistic populism of health minister John Reid, advocates a more balanced approach to childhood obesity, embracing such issues as exercise, family eating habits and food labelling.
Friction over policy between a government and its regulatory agency is in itself a not very auspicious signal. More to the point, Ofcom can cite research indicating that similar advertising bans in other countries have had only a modest impact on children’s consumption patterns. Many children ignore the watershed. Nor is there much reliable evidence that their eating habits are heavily conditioned by television advertising.
As it happens, many of the food manufacturers and retailers, today some of television’s biggest advertisers, will simply switch the balance of their marketing activity to less controversial, though arguably more effective, through-the-line techniques. It’s true that TV revenues will be damaged by a pre-watershed ban, or its alternative, an industry self-denying ordinance. It’s conceivably true that commercially funded children’s channels and programmes will suffer, though some exaggeration on this score should be discounted. But it’s doubtful whether children will become less obese on account of any curbs on ‘junk’ food advertising.
Equally imprudently, an already ethically rocky Government has left itself exposed to a further charge of moral inconsistency. On the one hand it flaunts libertarian values by embarking upon the deregulation of a licensed vice, gambling. On the other, is flouts them by threatening to place arbitrary restrictions upon an essential and universal constituent of life. For who – exactly – is to judge, when food, which is essential, becomes ‘junk’, which is excess?
In last week’s piece, Initiative was inadvertently burdened with the loss of the &£800m Nestlé media business. It was in fact its IPG-owned sister agency, Universal McCann, that suffered the loss.
Stuart Smith, Editor