Co-op ban offers food for thought

This week the Co-op will outrage advertisers and the advertising business when its retail arm breaks ranks and calls for a strict ban on the advertising of fatty, sugary or salty foods during children’s TV viewing hours.

Critics, of which we can expect a number, will condemn the initiative as sensationalist rather than sensational and will accuse the Co-op of opportunism and hypocrisy. They will point out that the Co-op’s submission to the ITC calling for a partial ban coincides with a continuing slide in the Co-op’s market share. And that, while calling for an ad ban, the Co-op falls well short of a self-denying ordinance on stocking these self-same “offensive” products in its own stores.

Nevertheless, if we strip away some of the emotive language (“food crimes”, “blackmail”), there is no doubting that the Co-op has seized a powerful populist issue which advertisers, like it or not, must heed.

The gist of the Co-op’s stance is that dubious marketing methods are being used to persuade an increasingly overweight and unhealthy young population to eat junk food. Advertising is particularly at fault. According to the retailer’s independently conducted research, during a week’s peak-time children’s TV during March, up to 60 per cent of commercials were for food and drinks. Of these, 70 per cent were found to contain high levels of fat, sugar or salt. On Saturday morning, the figure rose to 99 per cent.

This at a time when the Government’s National Food Guide recommends that food in these categories should account for no more than seven per cent of a child’s diet. When Sweden, which has a missionary zeal about banning all forms of advertising to children, is about to take the helm at the European Union. When the newly established Food Standards Agency has expressed concern over the state of children’s diets. And when public opinion, helpfully crystallised in an NOP poll commissioned by the Co-op, is overwhelmingly in favour of stricter rules governing advertising to children.

The industry does itself few favours in debates of this kind. There is enough public paranoia about the “Hidden Persuaders” without (as the current IPA president is fond of reminding us) maverick admen wading into the debate as clumsy and unconvincing apologists.

Yet there are ways of swimming against this fearsome current. Those who insist that this is a bigger issue than television advertising, and that pester power is an age-old phenomenon which defies simplistic classification, are right. But they cannot have the argument both ways: if banning TV advertising were to have a negligible impact on children nagging their parents, how can it simultaneously be upheld as the single most powerful medium, into which advertisers habitually pour billions of pounds?

Far better to concentrate on the issue of responsibility. Advertisers have a responsibility not to mislead viewers about the content of the product they are promoting – for example, by claiming dubious health benefits. But they are not entirely responsible for the amount of television that parents allow their children to watch. Nor are they custodians of the family diet. Caveat spectator.


    Leave a comment