Some cheer for advertisers in the healthy food debate

Having entered into an informal coalition with government, advertisers have seen off the threat of more curbs – for now

Last week the advertising and communications industry managed to emerge with some credit from a critical investigation into its influence on healthy diets. I’m talking of the conference – Food Advertising: Time for a Healthy Debate – organised by the Advertising Association’s (AA) Food Advertising Unit.

Practitioners were there, of course, to tell us how fine and upstanding the industry has been in implementing recommended guidelines. But there were plenty of less partial, and often less sympathetic, participants in the debate: civil servants; single issue health pressure groups and NGOs; government ministers and opposition health spokesmen frankly sceptical of the effectiveness of industry self-regulation; and academics whose primary interest was in querying the research methodology on which many of our assumptions about the spread of the obesity epidemic are based.

Historically, the industry has been a football in this debate. Politicians cannot resist giving it a good kicking because they are able to score easy goals. There are attractive sound-bites to be minted out of “irresponsible commercialism” and allusions to “The Hidden Persuaders” theory of advertising. Besides, trundling out regulatory curbs on the advertising of substances deemed to be high in fat, salt and sugar is a much easier fix than tackling the underlying social causes of obesity (for example, lack of exercise, or peer acceptance of being overweight).

For a different reason, advertisers are also vulnerable to single-issue pressure groups. Many of these groups are better equipped to mobilise support around their raison d’etre – and certainly better funded – than the industry’s own thinly-spread trade bodies.

Superficially, that might seem surprising. After all, advertisers are not poor. They spend over £19bn a year (according to the AA) hawking their wares “above the line”. And more than the same amount again is deployed on promotional expenditure such as direct marketing, point of sale and sales promotion. Woefully little of this money finds its way into funding the trade bodies defending their cause, which are further weakened by an inability to subordinate internal industry differences to the greater goal of creating an effective umbrella organisation. The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising made an abortive attempt with the Big Tent initiative a few years ago. Since then the AA has come closest to assuming industry “thought leadership” under Baroness Peta Buscombe. But she foundered on the rock of funding. Buscombe’s successor, Tim Lefroy, has sensibly made extra funding one of his priorities, and has had some early success with a pledge from Google to help endow his Front Foot initiative, a kind of research academy whose aim is to build trust in advertising.

To revert to the “healthy debate” conference (which I must own up to having chaired), its outcome should give advertisers some cheer.
First of all, the “let’s ban it” attitude to regulation, which earlier typified Government policy, has now been displaced by a more consensual approach which stresses voluntary collaboration with all interested parties – advertisers included. Sure, it’s possible to cite 125 separate pieces of legislation which have been introduced over the past five years to control marketing and advertising. But taken in isolation that neat statistic is misleading. The high-watermark of intervention was almost certainly the attempt – unsuccessful as it turned out – to impose a watershed ban on “junk-food” advertising to children in late 2006. Since then, the tide has been running the other way, the current driving it being voluntary restraint.

The foundation stone of this new thinking is the Government’s £75m social welfare campaign Change4Life, launched ten months ago; and its associated industry support programme Business4Life, sponsored by the AA.

The conference performed the useful function of a health-check on the soundness of that policy. There are, it seems to me, three main areas of concern. The first is the state of the obesity epidemic. Here there is room for guarded optimism. Recent figures suggest the trend among children under 18 is slowing, and while scarcely cause for complacency, these findings have taken some of the heat out of the debate. The alarmist projections drawn up two years ago, on behalf of the Government, by Professor Klim McPherson, now look discredited.

Second, would an incoming Conservative Government honour the spirit of the government/ industry concordat reached under the present regime? The broad answer from Earl Howe, shadow health spokesman in the Lords for the Conservative Party, was yes, it would.

The third area of contention is whether the industry will keep its side of the bargain and effectively police agreed standards of behaviour. Jane Landon, deputy chief executive of the umbrella NGO the National Heart Forum, was not the only one at the conference to express concern about the advent of product placement on commercial television, which could, she said, benefit food and drinks manufacturers by creating “unconscious imprinting” on viewers’, particularly young viewers’, minds. It’s too early to predict what will happen with product placement, but speakers at the conference did suggest that another loophole in the regulatory framework is about to close.

Nick Stringer, head of regulatory affairs at the Internet Advertising Bureau, assured us that branded website owners will no longer be able to seed irresponsible non-paid-for advertising messages in their content, safe in the knowledge that they can escape the regulator’s scrutiny.

From the middle of next year these, too, will come within the remit of the Code of Advertising Practice, policed by the Advertising Standards Authority. Thanks, it seems, to a deal brokered by the AA involving “seed capital” from Google – in itself something of a breakthrough.

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