What Labour’s food policy could mean for advertisers

The subject of advertising food to children has come under scrutiny over the past few years, and is an inevitable hot topic among policy makers in the lead up to the general election in May.

In a pledge to protect children from the harm caused by unhealthy foods, Labour made a promise today (15 January) that if elected, it will work with the Food Standards Agency (FDA) to restrict the levels of fat, salt and sugar in food directly marketed to children, also eyeing the possibility of a 9pm watershed on the advertising of unhealthy products.

The party will also look to improve food labelling by working with the EU to introduce a traffic-light scheme on packaged food, and will also take action against high-strength, low-cost alcohol, which it believes fuels binge drinking.

Unclear definitions of targeting children

While the use of cartoons is one way of directly targeting youngsters, it is unclear what other types of advertising would be included in the limitations.

Current advertising codes place limitations on the content and scheduling of TV ads which are high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), restricting them from being played around programmes that are directed at children or have a high level of viewers up to 16 years of age.

Existing rules also state that ads must not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits in children, encourage excessive consumption of food and drink, or give a misleading impression of the nutritional benefit of products.

However, the new Labour food policy did not highlight exactly who would be impacted. Questions remain over what would qualify as direct marketing towards children, what would qualify as HFSS food as well as what factors would result in the party bringing in a watershed ban.

Matt Wilson, communications and marketing manager for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), told Marketing Week: “We need to know more details about how this process would work, for example how they intend to differentiate advertising targeted to children vs. advertising that isn’t.”

Watershed ban would change the rules of the industry

As far as a 9PM watershed, Ian Twinn, director of public affairs for advertising trade body ISBA, says it is unclear which brands would be affected. He ads that the suggestion in the Financial Times that Coca-Cola, which draws constant concerns about sugar consumption, wouldn’t be touched by the new restrictions calls into question what the policy is truly about.

“They haven’t really hashed out how the policies would work and have an impact on children’s weight and fitness,” he says.

He also believes the change would be bad news for viewers of British television.

“It would result in cheaper media, fewer advertisers wanting to advertise and worse programming content,” he says. “Banning ads won’t achieve Labour’s objectives. Kids can still watch these ads elsewhere.”

Wilson says a watershed would require a change to the rules of advertising and would require further discussion.

“In terms of what Labour’s announcement this morning will mean for advertisers and/or the ASA, we’re happy to have open and constructive discussions with them about our role and food advertising rules around children, and to establish what their concerns are.

“These are big, significant proposals that could impact the advertising industry,” he says. “The devil will be in the detail.”

Advertising bodies call for evidence-based policies

The policy is part of an effort to ensure the long-term affordability and sustainability of the NHS, as the party claims that unless action is taken to halt the rise in obesity and diabetes, the cost of diabetes to the NHS will hit £17bn each year by 2035, up from £10bn.

Tam Fry, a spokesman for the NOF, last week told Marketing Week: “The food industry is not doing enough. We have so much food with ingredients that are leading to obesity and other diseases and time is running out.”

He also said that the levels of sugar in food are needlessly high and causing huge damage.

While Twinn acknowledges the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles, he says the policy isn’t clear.

“There are good proposals in the paper to support giving people, in particular younger persons, more information on a healthier lifestyle and the goal to get 50% of the UK psychically active by 2025, but specific policy proposals like the absolute limit of the per cent of fat, sugar and salt in the make-up of foods that are advertised to children is vague and almost certainly full of holes,” Twinn says.

He challenges the idea of using advertising techniques as a tool of determining which products are affected, and adds that massive state intervention on what the public is allowed to see needs to be evidence-based. However, he says there is no solid evidence to show that ads have an effect on what children consume over time.

“I have no doubt whatsoever that Andy Burnham and Luciana Berger are well motivated to do something about the issue, but it’s disappointing,” Twinn says. “It feels like a tick-list of people they need to please. It really is a missed opportunity.”

Barbara Gallani, director of regulation, science and health for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), agrees the policy should be about behavioural programmes rather than state intervention.

“Educating families on what an appropriate portion size looks like, as well as frequency of consumption, is key rather than the introduction of unworkable limits on certain nutrients which would jeopardise the quality of some of the world-renowned foods that are made in the UK.

Conservatives defend stance on public health

Polling suggests that while the chance of another coalition government involving the Labour party is high, the party also has as much chance of leading a majority government as the Conservative party, who defends the work it has done to tackle obesity.

The Tories have all but ruled out anything similar to the Labour policy.

A Conservative spokesperson said: “Real progress has been made on public health under this Government – obesity rates in adults and children have fallen since 2010, alcohol-related harm is down, and smoking rates are at their lowest ever levels.

“Labour are naïve to think that just banning particular types of food will support people to make informed choices. The public deserve better.”

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