As an organisation, our interaction with marketers has been quite limited – we tend to interact more with public affairs or nutrition teams. It would be helpful to have more direct contact with marketers, to convey the message around why restricting marketing of sugary products to children is so important when we have a childhood obesity crisis in the UK.
The Advertising Standards Authority has been quite receptive and willing to collaborate. That has been very positive and I think they understand the issues that are involved in this area.
The ultimate aim of a marketer is to sell more of a product. At the same time, there is limited recognition of the causes of obesity and the problems around high sugar intake. Take for example Coca-Cola’s red cola. There is still a big push on all Coke’s advertising being surrounded by the red cola, even though it has Coke Zero and previously Coca-Cola Life with less sugar.
If you are a company that has other products, it would be helpful if they were promoted as opposed to the sugary ones, but I’m not sure that is happening at the moment. What I tend to see is the key brand – the high-sugar brand – being promoted more than the lower-sugar varieties.
Improve existing products
We’ve had interactions with companies that have had a change of heart with sugary products. For example, with the sugar levy coming in, they have started to reduce sugar levels, recognising the problems that their product category has contributed to. That has been more positive, but I wouldn’t say that’s true of all companies. We struggle to find a company that is taking a 360-degree approach to improving their product and marketing it more responsibly.
There is a point about companies that are quietly reducing levels of sugar and not necessarily shouting about it. Generally the recommended approach is that it should be done unobtrusively and gradually so you take the consumer along with you while improving your products. People stick to the same habits and products, and just improving existing products will have a bigger impact on reducing sugar intake than creating new alternatives.
We’re often told that obesity is very complex and I agree with that, but if we look specifically at what is contributing to excess sugar intake, it is quite clear. First, it’s widely available. There is easy access to sugary products, perhaps even more so than lower-sugar ones. Also it is widely affordable, which is positive if all food is cheaper and more affordable, and people can start making healthier choices. It’s an issue when the cheaper products tend to be the higher-sugar products.
The last two reasons we are eating too much sugar is because the sugary products tend to be the ones promoted and marketed. We know marketing influences eating habits, particularly children’s. That’s why there is such a huge investment in advertising and marketing. Some marketers say they market because they are trying to take away the market share of another competitor, but if you advertise a McDonald’s burger it doesn’t just increase sales of McDonald’s burgers, but burgers in general.
Promote healthy variants
The restrictions on children’s TV time has shifted the adverts that wouldn’t be allowed to prime-time, when the whole family is watching. A responsible company would say we won’t advertise during that time, or would advertise the selection of products that are better for children. So many NGOs have been calling for this for so many years, and from a campaigning perspective it has had very limited progress. There are many products that are healthier, better alternatives, and they can still be advertised during that time.
Kellogg’s, for example, has a variety of breakfast cereals – those with higher and lower levels of sugar. It would be so helpful if you could target the low-sugar, low-salt, high-fibre varieties at children, adding the animation on pack and encourage children to shift to those types of products. I see it as such a missed opportunity.
It would also be very helpful to have colour-coded labelling on the front of packs of all types of products, and even adverts. It will save a parent from having to turn the pack and look through the nutritional panel, which tends to be quite complex. We will only see the benefits if it is applied across all products, because otherwise the consumer can’t make that comparison at a glance.
In some states in the US, when there is a billboard ad for a high-sugar soft drink, there is a warning label. The idea behind the ad is to encourage consumption, but we need to give consumers more information about where that product would sit in their diet.
Regulation can be beneficial for companies themselves because there are a number of businesses that are quite progressive and doing a lot behind the scenes to improve their products and advertise them more responsibly. But they are faced with competitors that are less progressive and don’t want to be doing any of that. The government and companies need to talk about that to recognise that regulation is beneficial for the industry too.