Government accused of chasing ‘cheap headlines’ as junk food ad ban proceeds

The Government has confirmed that it is moving forward with its proposals for HFSS advertising restrictions, under which Cadbury will be unable to widely advertise its 30% reduced sugar Dairy Milk chocolate.

Food and drink brands will be unable to advertise high fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) products anywhere online or before 9pm on television from the end of 2022, as the Government presses ahead with controversial plans for an advertising ban.

Experts from trade bodies across the industry have vigorously objected to the proposals, expressing concern that the ban will not only impact sales for affected brands and advertising businesses, potentially leading to major job cuts, but may in fact stifle the development of healthier products.

Even so, the Government announced its intention to move ahead with the ban as it laid out its legislative priorities for the coming government session in the Queen’s Speech this week.

“The advertising bans on TV and online outlined in today’s Queen’s Speech confirms this Government is interested in headline chasing policy rather than making serious interventions that will help reduce obesity rates,” says the Federation of Food and Drink’s chief scientific officer, Kate Halliwell.

Halliwell points out that the proposals limit the scope for advertising products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller portions in-line with the Government’s targets. Cadbury would be unable to advertise its 30% reduced sugar Dairy Milk, for example.

“This is tying businesses hands by limiting how healthier options can be successfully brought to market,” she says. “It undercuts what has been a key pillar of the Government’s obesity strategy, and demonstrates a lack of joined-up policy making.”

This is tying businesses hands, by limiting how healthier options can be successfully brought to market.

Kate Halliwell, Federation of Food and Drink

On top of the advertising restrictions, retailers will be unable to offer ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy foods and will be restricted on where HFSS product can be promoted in-store, including a ban on chocolate, crisps and sweets being sold at the checkout. This is planned to take effect from April 2022.

Restaurant, café or takeaway chains with more than 250 employees will also be required to label the calories of their meals on their menu.

The Advertising Association (AA)’s CEO, Stephen Woodford, says he is “dismayed” by the Government’s decision, citing concerns that it will limit business and innovation, and put jobs across brands and the wider ad industry in jeopardy.

“The country needs balanced, consistent and well-evidenced policy interventions that will make a positive difference,” he says. “The 9pm watershed and online ban will not reduce obesity levels, but will damage business and innovation and put jobs at risk.”

Calls for clarity

Trade bodies across both sectors have pointed to the Government’s own research, which has suggested that an online ad ban will cut the average child’s calorie intake by just 2.84 calories per day.

However, the advertising industry and brands stand to make a substantial loss in revenues. The Government has suggested that the online ad ban will lead to a £20.3m reduction in profits for retailers and manufacturers of HFSS products, while the 9pm TV watershed will lead to a £27m sales impact. The figures have been deemed a conservative estimate by some experts.

Meanwhile, ISBA analysis, based on 2019 ASBOF (Advertising Standards Board of Finance) data from Nielsen for 1,700 leading advertisers, suggests that the size of the online food and drink advertising market amounts to £442.5m.

Business will be forgiven for thinking that this Government cares less for serious policy than it does cheap headlines.

Phil Smith, ISBA

The Government has been in consultation with trade bodies on the proposals over previous months to establish the impact they might have. ISBA’s director-general, Phil Smith, has said it is now “vitally important” that the Government responds to the consultation and sets out the details of its proposed ban. ISBA has since been told that this will not come for some weeks.

“If, after months of engagement, Government has chosen to ignore more sophisticated, better targeted, cheaper and more proportionate ways to protect children online, then business will be forgiven for thinking that this Government cares less for serious policy than it does cheap headlines,” Smith adds.Government rolls out junk food ad ban

The Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB), which counts Google and Facebook among its stakeholders, is “urgently” seeking clarification from the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to understand the situation for its members and the wider industry, demanding detail on the scope of the ban, as well as the regulatory responsibility and framework.

“Policy interventions as serious and sweeping as an outright ban should be rooted in robust evidence. The Government’s online HFSS ad ban is not,” says IAB UK CEO Jon Mew.

“The Government has so far failed to make the case for a total online ban, and we urge it to reconsider the smarter, evidence-led solutions that can be delivered more quickly and effectively by the existing regulatory system.”

But on the other hand, Queen Mary University’s Action on Sugar and Action on Salt group has said it “warmly welcomes” the news.

The chair of the group, Professor Graham MacGregor, adds that while these “landmark” obesity policies will make the UK “world-leading”, it is “crucial” that obesity is not only prevented, but treated – which must include product reformulation.

“With figures published last year suggesting that nearly two-thirds of adults in England are either overweight or living with obesity (and obesity linked to the worst outcomes of Covid-19), the food and drink industry, including the hospitality sector, must not dither or delay any longer and create a level playing field,” he says.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson first revealed his proposal for the new HFSS advertising restrictions in July last year, sparked by the correlation between Covid-19 death rates and obesity levels.

The UK already has some of the strictest rules on HFSS advertising in the world. Ads for such products cannot be targeted at children up to 16 in any media, while in most countries the rules apply only to under 12s. This means HFSS advertising cannot appear near schools, during TV programming aimed at children, or on children’s websites.