Confusion in the debate on children’s ads

Ofcom’s stance on advertising food to children remains ambiguous, despite what the papers said.

So what exactly is Ofcom’s view on food advertising and children? As Marketing Week predicted last week, the broadcasting regulator has taken a different line from the Food Standards Agency over the links between television advertising and childhood obesity. But there’s still great confusion about what its report actually says.

On the one hand, there’s the version espoused by the front-page of last Friday’s Daily Telegraph: “Watchdog rules out TV ban on junk food adverts.” And The Guardian: “Ofcom rules out ban on child junk food ads.” And the Financial Times: “Ofcom opposes TV ban to curb obesity.”

The Telegraph was unequivocal: “A ban on television advertising of junk food and drink was ruled out yesterday by Ofcom, the media regulator.” So was The Guardian: “The television watchdog Ofcom ruled out a ban on advertising junk foods to children yesterday, saying the role of advertising in obesity was small compared to that of other factors such as exercise and family habits.”

Yet The Times had a completely different take. Under the headline “It’s crunch time for cartoon adverts” and a large picture of Tony the Tiger holding a box of Kellogg’s Frosties, it proclaimed: “Broadcasting regulator is ready to get tough on television food promotions that target children.” Its story began: “Tony the Tiger is facing extinction after the broadcasting regulator threatened to stop junk food advertisements on television using cartoon characters.”

Alongside a picture of Gary Lineker promoting Walkers Crisps, it went on: “The regulator will also have to consider whether to ban celebrity endorsements after 50 per cent of parents backed such a move.”

So which version is right?

Arguably, both – but a crucial word was missing from the first version’s headlines and opening sentences. That word was “total”, as in “Watchdog rules out total ban on junk food adverts”. It appeared later in the body copy, but by then the emphasis of the story had already been established.

This helps to explain why the response of medical and consumer organisations was also divided. The British Medical Association, which had called for an ad ban, said it was disappointed by Ofcom’s report, and commented “Surely the health of our children is more important than advertising revenues?” The Consumers’ Association said the Government could not afford to belittle advertising’s importance in influencing children’s choice of foods.

But the National Consumer Council said it was encouraging that Ofcom had not ruled out targeted controls on ads for foods high in salt, sugar and fat. Pointing out that the Ofcom research showed that 57 per cent of parents supported a ban on food ads during children’s airtime, the NCC urged it to back stricter controls when it drew up changes to the advertising codes this autumn.

So how was it that so many of the press went for the “no ban” angle rather than the “crunch time for cartoons” version? The answer lies in Ofcom’s news release, which set out to diminish the link between advertising and child obesity.

“The evidence shows that television advertising has a modest direct effect on children’s food consumption,” it said. “However, the significance of this is small when compared to other factors potentially linked to childhood obesity such as exercise, trends in family eating habits, parents’ demographics, school policy, public understanding of nutrition, food labelling and other forms of food promotion.”

It set out four reasons why it believed “a total ban on such advertising would be both ineffective and disproportionate in its wider impact.” They include evidence that 70 per cent of children’s viewing is outside children’s airtime and that a total ban would undermine the funding of new programmes for children.

Yet there were also clear signals that Ofcom is prepared to take “targeted action” against particular types of food advertising. The release quoted Stephen Carter, Ofcom’s chief executive, as saying: “Television advertising clearly has an influence and equally clearly there is a need for a tightening of specific rules.” It said the research showed parents “support the use of targeted scheduling restrictions” and “would like advertisements directed at young children to be less attractive, for example by avoiding the use of cartoon characters.” It had “identified potential targeted areas of change”.

Which is why a ban on some types of food advertising still seems quite possible. It could include a ban on cartoon characters, a ban on celebrities who appeal to the young, and a ban on some advertisements during children’s programmes.

Ofcom is now waiting for the Government’s Health White Paper and the FSA’s own nutritional profiling of foods, before deciding how far these should be reflected in the advertising code.

The advertising and food industries aren’t out of the woods yet.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News


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