Ofcom follows the wisdom of Solomon in junk food debate

This may explain why it appears to have passed the buck on whether “HSS foods”, as we must learn to call them, should be advertised on television. Or, if you bridle at the term “passed the buck”, why it has adopted a sensibly pragmatic respons

By offering options on the issue of TV advertising and childhood obesity, the TV regulator has passed the buck to advertisers and broadcasters

This may explain why it appears to have passed the buck on whether “HSS foods”, as we must learn to call them, should be advertised on television. Or, if you bridle at the term “passed the buck”, why it has adopted a sensibly pragmatic response to one of the hottest debates in town.

Last week, Ofcom finally published its long-awaited proposals for tightening the rules on food and drink advertising aimed at children. Instead of coming up with one plan, it produced four, laying out various sets of restrictions on the timing or volume of food and drink advertising on TV. The last of the four was, in effect, “If you can think of anything better, please let us know”.

Who can blame it?

The debate over who or what is responsible for the growth in childhood obesity is so heated and complex that even Solomon would find it hard to resolve. Some doctors, MPs and consumer groups want to ban TV advertising for what they call “junk food” before the 9pm watershed. They say burgers, crisps, fizzy drinks and sugary cereals shouldn’t be advertised to the young at all, let alone during children’s programmes.

But food manufacturers and retailers say that most foods are fine in moderation – and children and parents should be encouraged to adopt a healthier lifestyle. They also insist that the amount of food advertising on TV is going down, while obesity is going up.

At the last stage of this argument, 18 months ago, Ofcom ruled out a total advertising ban, saying that while TV ads had a slight influence on the growth of childhood obesity, they were less important than half a dozen other factors, such as taking exercise and parental guidance.

This time, the health campaigners decided to get their retaliation in first. A few days before Ofcom’s report, the National Consumer Council (NCC) put out a news release headed: “NCC urges Ofcom to take tough line on junk food TV promotions to kids”, thus preparing the media ground for the inevitable wave of disappointment when the regulator delivered something less than they had demanded.

Ofcom’s own release on the day of the report hardly set the blood racing. It laid out its four options for consultation and didn’t even mention that celebrities and licensed characters would be banned from food and drink ads aimed at the under-tens. So too would promotional offers, such as the collectables and giveaways featured in McDonalds’ Happy Meals.

These are significant changes that seem set to come into effect, whichever of the options is adopted. But this didn’t become clear till we delved into the report itself – perhaps because these new content rules were drawn up by the industry’s self-regulatory body, the Broadcasting Committee of Advertising Practice, and not by Ofcom.

Yet nor did the news release point out the most striking implications of Ofcom’s own proposals, notably that under two of the options, some children’s channels could lose as much as 20% of their advertising revenue.

Presumably this was so as not to aggravate advertisers, agencies and broadcasters. Since Ofcom didn’t draw attention to them, it’s little wonder that the NCC’s response to the report was so jaded. Its chief executive Ed Mayo said: “None of these proposals goes anywhere near what’s needed to redress the imbalance in TV advertising of unhealthy food to children – and so help tackle childhood obesity”.

Even when we got into the report, some of the likely effects of the changes remained tantalisingly unclear. What journalists wanted to be able to say, categorically, was that the rule changes meant the end, say, of Gary Lineker’s ads for Walkers crisps or the Tony the Tiger commercials for Frosties.

But if Lineker’s ads are aimed at adults they could well continue, while Tony the Tiger is exempt from the changes because he’s the advertiser’s own creation, not a character licensed from a film or TV show such as Shrek or Bart Simpson.

So why is Ofcom still offering options rather than a clear-cut ruling?

It’s hoping to persuade the advertising and broadcasting industries to make the decision for it.

Some of its options would hit the revenue of the children’s channels harder than that of the public-service terrestrial channels, and vice-versa. Ofcom says: “It appears not to be possible to reconcile differing views among industry interests [broadcasters, platform operators, advertisers, food manufacturers, retailers].” It hopes to force the issue by putting forward the four options, and seeing whether the industry can rally behind any of them.

It’s not exactly Solomon’s solution – “go on, sort it out yourselves”. But if the industry can’t reach agreement, Ofcom will finally have to make the decision itself.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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