Brand owners have condemned a new Bill which seeks to outlaw the promotion of snack foods to children through websites, product packaging and point of sale materials.
A Private Members Bill from Nigel Griffiths MP, which gets its first reading in Parliament this week, proposes significantly tightening restrictions on marketing salty, fatty and sugary foods to children.
It could have a devastating effect on fast-food chains such as McDonald’s, which make heavy use of posters and other advertising materials to market snack products to children within their restaurants.
The Bill’s main proposal is to ban junk food ads during all television programmes shown before 9pm. At present, only programmes that appeal mainly to children are forbidden from showing such commercials.
But in a move that would significantly affect the design, sales promotions and online industries, the Bill would extend the restrictions across all forms of non-broadcast marketing. It would effectively outlaw brand websites for products high in salt, fat and sugar (HFSS) – as defined by the Food Standards Agency’s nutrient profiling model – which are visited by children. Packaging design of HFSS products would also be strictly regulated, and in-store promotions would be made illegal.
Restrictions that go too far
Baroness Peta Buscombe, chief executive of the Advertising Association, says: “There are already tough restrictions which apply in the non-broadcast media. This Private Members Bill goes too far and will have unintended consequences.” Meanwhile, Ian Twinn, public affairs spokesman of brand owners’ organisation ISBA, says: “This private member’s bill, and the so-called consumer organisations backing it, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the obesity problem. Advertisers are as concerned as anyone else to help find a solution but a crude ban is too simplistic.” Industry observers are awaiting further details of the Bill. While few believe it is likely to become law, it could well form the basis of future legislation.
According to sales promotion specialist Jamie Matthews, managing director of Initials Marketing, such legislation would severely damage in-store marketing by fast-food chains. “One of fast-food retailers’ biggest areas of marketing is their point of sale material. Restricting the in-store environment is going to be the last nail in the coffin for marketing for a lot of the fast-food brands,” he says. “They will effectively have to become adult brands.” But he believes that supermarkets and food and drink brands would be unaffected by restrictions on point of sale material, since most have already moved away from aggressively targeting children as they fear being pilloried by lobby groups.
At present, only paid-for food and drink advertising on the internet is regulated, though the rules apply to all foods apart from fruit and vegetables and irrespective of nutrient profiling. But the Bill proposes applying nutrient profiling to all forms of non-broadcast advertising. Controversially, it would also cover brand websites that are currently exempt because they are considered as editorial. This is bound to stoke fears about censorship and freedom of speech.
A price worth paying?
The Bill is backed by lobby group Which? and a range of health charities. Children’s Food Campaign co-ordinator Richard Watts says details of how the point-of-sale ban would work are still being ironed out. But he adds that it would aim to curtail all marketing of HFSS products to children within restaurants. “It would create difficulties for the likes of McDonald’s, but we think that is a price they should pay on behalf of improving children’s health,” he says.