Industry criticises ‘ineffective’ and ‘headline-chasing’ attempts to introduce watershed for junk food ads

Both the advertising and food and drink industries have hit out at a proposed pre-9pm watershed for high fat, salt and sugar advertising despite growing support for such a ban from MPs, charities and public figures such as Jamie Oliver.

Both the advertising and food and drink industries have condemned the “headline-chasing”  attempts to introduce a watershed for junk food TV ads, warning it could lead to job cuts and a big drop in investment for media platforms reliant on advertising.

The Advertising Association (AA) and Food and Drink Association (FDF) have both criticised the proposal to ban TV advertisements for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) products before 9pm, arguing that it will have no significant impact on childhood obesity despite campaigners insistence to the contrary.

Stephen Woodford, chief executive of the AA, tells Marketing Week: “We already have among the strictest rules in the world across all media, which have dramatically reduced the exposure of children to HFSS advertising. The 9pm watershed was rejected by Ofcom as disproportionate and ineffective 10 years ago and changing media consumption habits of children will make it even less likely to have an impact today.

“Obesity rates among young people vary significantly across the UK, correlating strongly to areas with increased deprivation. This suggests that effective action must be targeted at local level and that blanket nationwide restrictions across media are not the answer.”

The FDF agrees that the issue is more nuanced than simply introducing a watershed and expecting to see childhood obesity rates go down. “Childhood obesity rates are too high across the UK but it is the stark differences in rates between the least and most deprived children that most urgently needs to be tackled.

“Industry is pulling its weight. It is time for government to resist calls for headline-chasing measures that affect all consumers and instead to invest money behind specific, targeted measures for those people and areas most affected by obesity.”

READ MORE: MPs ramp up pressure on marketers with move to ban junk food ads

The proposed rules would mean that any advertisement which contains a HFSS product would not be broadcast until after 9pm, including during holidays such as Christmas and Easter. The aim is to stop children watching unhealthy food and drink ads during family television shows such as X Factor.

The proposed ban is supported by a  study from Liverpool University last year which found that children were seeing as many as 12 advertisements for junk food within an hour while watching family shows.

However, The AA is warning that not only would a pre-9pm ban be “ineffective” but it could also have a severe impact on jobs in the industry. Woodford explains: “Such a ban, while ineffective, will also be damaging to UK commercial media and have an impact on the quality of media, British cultural content and jobs. Advertising supports nearly a million jobs across the length and breadth of the UK and finances British culture, media content and sport valued at £10bn a year.

“It is important to remember advertising restrictions limit the ability of commercial media companies to generate revenue, limit opportunities for businesses to grow through advertising and restrict consumer choice.”

The backlash against junk food advertising

Despite the backlash from both the ad and food and drink industry, many MP’s, charities and celebrities are arguing in favour of the watershed.

Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s expert on cancer and obesity, explains: “Cancer Research UK wants the Government to ban junk food TV adverts before 9pm to protect young people from the constant promotion of unhealthy foods. Our research shows that teenagers are more than twice as likely to be obese if they can remember seeing a junk food advert every day compared to those who couldn’t recall any over a month. We know that curbing exposure to junk food ads would help reduce obesity rates among young people.”

The proposal has been spurred by the #AdEnough campaign launched by Jamie Oliver. He tells Marketing Week: “#AdEnough isn’t about stopping big brands from advertising full stop; it’s about making sure kids aren’t being targeted with unhealthy products. It’s about controlling the time and place. I’m not saying Coke you can’t advertise – just advertise Coke Zero before 9pm on telly.”

READ MORE: Industry welcomes stricter rules on advertising junk food to children

The campaign has gained support from fellow celebrities such as  Amanda Holden, Gary Barlow and Richard Branson.

Oliver adds: “All I’m asking is, is it appropriate to advertise food that is high in salt, fat and sugar to children during their favourite shows on prime time TV and to bombard them when they’re online, when obesity is crippling the NHS?”

#AdEnough isn’t about stopping big brands from advertising full stop; it’s about making sure kids aren’t being targeted with unhealthy products.

Jamie Oliver

Currently the advertising of junk food is self-regulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice. It already has in place rules that mean brands are not allowed to target HFSS food and drinks during any programme where 75% of the audience is aged under 16 across all media.

CAP also called a review into HFSS advertising guidelines earlier this year, which was welcomed by the industry.

Phil Smith, director general of ISBA, echoes this by saying: “The UK has one of the strictest regulatory regimes in the world when it comes to advertising foods high in fat, salt and sugar to ensure that our children are properly protected.”

This is not the first time a pre-watershed ban has been proposed, with health experts lobbying the government a number of times over the past few years. However, many in the ad industry fear renewed pressure this year will lead to the end of self-regulation, with the government expected to come to a decision in June.

The AA has released 10 key facts to try to combat what it says is a lack of knowledge around HFSS advertising. These include: “A pre-9pm watershed ban would be disproportionate as it would remove adverts targeted at adult audiences and severely limit the ability of adults to view ads for products they wish to purchase

“The self- and co- regulatory system is responsible and responds quickly to new evidence. Since July 2017 the same tough rules have applied in all other media including online, social media and public transport. These rules are being comprehensively reviewed one year on to ensure they are fit-for-purpose.”

Woodford is speaking on the Health and Social Care Committee panel today at 4.30pm alongside others from the industry and outside to debate the issue. It is unclear whether the government will call for a formal investigation before coming to a decision.