Ofcom junks food ads aimed at children

Ofcom’s decision last week to ban junk food advertising around children’s television programmes following a protracted consultation seems only to have succeeded in outraging all sides.

After proposing restrictions that cover children up to the age of 16, rather than the under-nines it consulted on, the media regulator has been accused by trade bodies, food manufacturers and broadcasters of bowing to political pressure. It will lead to a dearth of innovation within the food industry, yet do little to tackle the nation’s health, they claim.

It could also lead to further restrictions in other product categories, according to Sheena Horgan, director of specialist agency Kids Inc. “Today, it is the food and drink industry,” she says. “What’s next? Clothes, leisure, travel?”Meanwhile, health charities and lobbyists say that nothing short of a 9pm watershed ban on advertising foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) would have done. They believe the power of the food and advertising industries affected Ofcom’s decision.

The Ofcom ruling will prohibit advertising of HFSS products in or around all programmes which appeal to children under 16 years old. So programmes intended for adults which attract a significantly higher than average proportion of viewers under the age of 16 will also be affected.

Ofcom estimates the move will cost broadcasters up to £39m a year in lost revenues, falling to about £23m as they find other advertisers over time. The restrictions will be phased in over a two-year period from January.

Consultation in actionMartin Glenn, Iglo Birds Eye chief executive and former president of PepsiCo UK, says Friday’s decision marked “a poor day for the food industry and a poor day for society”. He says the real issue is about the balance of calories eaten, adding that government figures show calorie consumption has actually gone down in the past decade.

The Food Drink Federation’s director general Melanie Leech says she is shocked that Ofcom has “moved the goalposts” from primary school children to all those under 16. “This issue has always been about advertising to young children,” she adds.

An Ofcom spokesman says the change was “consultation in action”. A further consultation on the move to extend restrictions to the under-16s has begun, with stakeholders having until December 15 to respond.

The FDF further believes, along with the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), that the regulations will be based on a “flawed” nutrient profiling model devised by the Food Standards Agency, which will discourage new product development. At present, foods such as Marmite and cheese would fall under a ban.

But campaign groups think advertisers have escaped lightly. The British Medical Association (BMA) and National Consumer Council believe programmes such as soap operas, which have a high number, if not proportion, of younger viewers will escape scrutiny.

Phillip Cullum, chief executive of the National Consumer Council, adds/ “This doesn’t really get to the heart of the issue. They say they have taken a focus on children, but the proposals don’t actually deliver that.”

Lobby group Sustain goes further and calls for the Government to take action. Co-ordinator Richard Watts says: “Given Gordon Brown’s support for restrictions until the watershed hour, we are very confident this will happen.”

But Ofcom clearly believes it has got it right. One insider reveals: “If you upset everyone equally then that solution is probably really in the middle.”

By curtailing the advertising of legal products, Ofcom has made a landmark ruling. As Horton says: “Industry, and by this I mean all industries, must reconsider their business model and their products with regard to children and families. To ignore this will be commercial suicide.”

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