Food ads are the key marketing battleground in the election

With each of the main political parties’ manifestos including varying levels of commitment to addressing the marketing of unhealthy food and drink products to children, marketers have reason to be cautious.

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Launching first last week, Labour’s manifesto insisted it would set limits on the amount of sugar, salt and fat in foods marketed to children, although any potential restraints to advertisers were left out.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, promised to “reduce childhood obesity and continue to promote clear food information.”

However, it was the Liberal Democrats who caused the biggest stir, with their pledge to push for a pre-watershed ban on junk food advertising potentially worrying for marketers, with the party likely to have a significant say should another coalition come to fruition.

Although the SNP, which could play a part in a Labour-led minority government, surprisingly left out any such commitment in its own manifesto, its views aren’t too dissimilar from the Lib Dems.

It previously revealed its approach to food standards will be linked with tax policy and advertising regulation to “allow for a coherent and concerted approach to issues of obesity and poor diet, which disproportionately affect poorer communities.”

“Should the Lib Dems or SNP get in alongside Labour it’s scary as there seems to be a real commitment to scare-mongering the public into thinking advertisers are fuelling obesity,” one supplier of confectionery told Marketing Week this week.

And with the probability of another coalition high, the Advertising Association is also fearful of the potential consequences to marketers.

Citing a 2006 report from Ofcom, which predicted a 4.8% in drop in TV ad revenues should a pre-watershed ban be introduced, it predicts that in 2015 that would equate to around £250m of losses annually.

Despite claiming UK food ads being “among the strictest in the world’ when it comes to Ofcom regulation, Ian Barber, communications director at the Advertising Association says there is still reason for concern.

He said: “You can’t dismiss the Lib Dem commitment as clearly these things can come to fruition. We know from 2007/08, when Ofcom introduced the current rules, the industry was put into a position where it was required to change the code.”

In 2008, regulator Ofcom outlawed adverts during children’s shows for foods high in fat, salt and sugar in an effort to tackle rising childhood obesity levels.

However, health campaigners have continued to call for a complete ban before the 9pm watershed.

Last year, Action on Junk Food Marketing analysed 750 adverts shown during the X Factor on ITV and the Simpsons and Hollyoaks on Channel 4 over 20 hours, finding 1 in 10 promoted fast food restaurants, confectionery or supermarket ‘junk food’. It says junk food brands are getting around the kids show ban by advertising during prime time family shows.

The Liberal Democrats want to introduce a pre-watershed ban to unhealthy food and drink ads.
The Liberal Democrats want to introduce a pre-watershed ban to unhealthy food and drink ads

“People criticise the sector and say their kids are bombarded, but the rates of advertising to children have fallen drastically and an evidence-based approach shows there is no real link between obesity and advertising,” rebukes Barber.

When reviewing the evidence on television advertising and obesity for the last Labour government, Professor David Buckingham said “the evidence is that the impact is very small… Focusing attention on television advertising may lead to a neglect of… other, more important factors.”

Barber adds: “Fortunately, I don’t think this is a red-line health issue for the Lib Dems like mental health is, but we can’t get complacent either and must remain cautious.”

ISBA’s Ian Twinn believes Clegg’s party is merely aiming for headlines.

“The Liberal Democrats are only really dangerous if in a Labour coalition, but even then Labour and the Conservatives have really committed to the creative industries over recent years, and we are in great dialogue with the likes of Harriet Harman.

The other parties appear to have weighed everything up to avoid conflicting messages in their manifestos, while I think the Lib Dems are just trying to get attention.”

And with UK advertising growing at its highest rate since 2010 last year, increasing 5.8% to £18.6bn, according to the Advertising Association, Barber says the industry is “in a good place to have a sensible negotiation, should it come to that.”

One notable omission from the main political parties’ manifestos was any sort of stance on gambling advertising, with Westminster expressing its concerns over the intensity of ads over recent years.

Barber clarifies: “It was a surprise omission but the evidence shows that although there has been an increase in advertising since the market was deregulated, problem gambling has stayed flat, so MPs are backing off.”

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