What kind of planet is Mars on?

Here we go again. Politicians trying to make some cheap capital out of the obesity crisis at the expense of advertisers. Industry trade bodies self-righteously laying down a withering counter-fire of rebuttal. And one of their number sneakily breaking ranks by attempting to get the best of both worlds.

The politicians in question are a group of parliamentarians, led by Labour backbencher Baroness Thornton, who are tabling a private member’s bill aimed at, as they see it, tightening up the limp-wristed advertising regulations announced by Ofcom last November.

“Limp-wristed” is not a term you would find advertisers using to describe these restrictions. Ofcom announced a total ban, it will be remembered, on fast food and confectionery advertising around children’s programming, or anything calculated to have particular interest to children, no matter which channel it might appear on.

That stopped some way short of the pre-watershed ban the health puritans had been demanding. And it is in order to remedy this deficiency that at least 142 MPs, with the backing of Sustain, the National Health Forum and the British Medical association, are supporting the bill.

Their task is made easier by the absurdity of some of Ofcom’s advertising proscriptions, based upon nutrient profiling. As the Grocer has pointed out, what sort of regulatory system is it that would ban certain kinds of honey and Marmite, but let through chicken nuggets?

Nevertheless, the bill’s naïve; and so is the good baroness if she really believes that, passed, it will “make a substantial contribution towards improving children’s health and stopping the childhood obesity epidemic”.

Turn of the screw
Or is that just easy political rhetoric, pronounced in the full knowledge that the bill will almost certainly fail, as most private member’s bills tend to? Their purpose is to stir up political controversy and put pressure on the government to step in and ‘do something’, when the natural inclination of most cabinet ministers would be to distance themselves as quickly as possible from such subjects.

The advertising lobby’s fears are fully warranted. For try as ISBA, the IPA and the AA might to inject a bit of rationality into the obesity debate (a balanced role, to be played by parents, society, educational institutions and, oh yes, advertisers), this is not a rational discussion. It’s far too tempting for politicians under pressure to knee this issue in its soft-underbelly: advertising as social menace. If they could stick an ASBO on it, they would.

And, as if this were not enough, the advertising lobby’s position is now being undermined by the behaviour of one of its most stalwart members Masterfoods, maker of Mars bars and Snickers.

An own goal
To great fanfare last week, the confectionery giant announced that it would raise its self-imposed ban on advertising to children from a threshold of six years? old to 12 years’ old. This would make it an industry leader in the area and put pressure on Nestlé, Cadbury and PepsiCo to raise their own bars.

Lo and behold though, it turns out Masterfoods is talking with forked tongue. While publicly avowing the need for stricter regulations binding confectionery advertising, it is simultaneously and secretively preparing new ranges of “healthy snacks” which will target nine year olds and above.

Now it could be objected that there is nothing illogical or even hypocritical about holding these two positions simultaneously. Indeed, given the increasingly parlous state of the confectionery market, it seems entirely sensible to diversify into something more healthy, less contentious and certainly less burdened by TV advertising restrictions.

But let’s unpick this a little further. Has Masterfoods got any kind of track record in the area of “healthy” credentials? It has not. In fact, it is to the calorie count what Big Oil is to the green movement.

So, an apparently generous gesture on confectionery advertising thresholds has been undermined, albeit accidentally. That makes the confectionery company sound weasly. And gives the unfortunate impression that the advertising lobby is more interested in expediency than fighting on a point of principle.

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