Brands can’t rely on research in obesity debate

A war of words – and facts – has erupted in the debate over food and drink advertising. Last month, the Academy of the Medical Royal Colleges (AMRC) called on the government to introduce a ban on advertising for foods high in saturated fats, sugar and salt (HFSS) before 9pm as a way of tackling childhood obesity. Although there is currently little sign of the Department of Health acting on such a proposal, marketers are increasingly concerned about attempts to portray their brands, as well as their advertising output, as the root of all evil.

jonny bacon

AMRC says its proposal has come out of in-depth research into the best ways to tackle obesity, conducted during a six-month inquiry by a steering group covering 20 of the Royal Medical Colleges and Faculties. The advertising industry is dismissive of the study, though, claiming it ignores existing evidence including OFCOM’s recent review that found no justification for a 9pm watershed. “There is no scientific consensus that food advertising causes obesity,” declared the Advertising Association in a report released shortly after the AMRC’s announcement.

But as the government searches for remedies to the nation’s escalating obesity crisis, a lack of ‘consensus’ might not be enough to protect brands. The AMRC made clear that its proposals were about “trying new innovations to see what works” rather than a case of sticking devoutly to existing empirical evidence. In other words, the obesity issue is now so critical that drastic measures are needed – if banning adverts could make a difference, why not try it?

With nearly half of UK men set to be obese by 2030 at current rates, this is a train of thought the government is increasingly likely to follow. In January, public health minister Anna Soubry warned that some food and drink companies faced the prospect of greater regulation if they failed to tackle the levels of sugar, fat and salt contained in their products voluntarily through the government’s Responsibility Deal. Other regulatory options – such as a tax on soft drinks – remain on the table too.

In this context, brands will have to put forward the strongest possible case if they are to resist attempts to curtail their advertising. In addition to producing their own open and honest market research into the relationship (or lack of) between advertising and obesity, brands must provide real support and solutions to governments fighting to improve public health. It’s no coincidence after all, that Coca-Cola is currently running a campaign focused squarely on the obesity question

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