How will the UK Government’s junk food ad ban impact the marketing sector?

UK advertising bodies share their concerns over the Government's plan to impose restrictions on high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) advertising.

A burger and chips

The UK Government recently unveiled a raft of measures it plans to introduce as part of its stragey to tackle obesity.

The urgency of tackling what it describes as “the obesity time bomb” has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from COVID-19.

Rather than focusing primarily on childhood obesity, the strategy represents a new focus on empowering adults to lose weight as well. The plan was launched alongside a ‘Better Health’ campaign, led by Public Health England (PHE), which will call on people to embrace a healthier lifestyle and to lose weight if they need to, supported by a range of evidence-based tools and apps providing advice on how to reduce the waistline.

The Government’s proposals include a 9pm watershed on high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) advertising on television and online; ending BOGOF promotions; calorie labelling; alcohol calorie labelling; expanding NHS services; front of pack nutritional labelling.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “These plans are ambitious and rightly so. Tackling obesity will help prevent serious illness and save lives.

“The main reason we put on weight is because of what we eat and drink, but being more active is important too. Making healthier choices easier and fairer for everyone, and ensuring the right support is there for those who need it, is critical in tackling obesity. scales on obesity. The argument for action is the clearest it’s ever been. These bold measures will help us tip the scales on obesity. The argument for action is the clearest it’s ever been.”

But as well as potentially having an effect on the nation’s health, the Government’s plans could have a far-reaching impact on advertising and marketing. Here, we share the thoughts of organisations in the UK that represent the advertising and marketing sectors.

Phil Smith, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers

“We’re deeply disappointed by the Prime Minister’s announcement. It rides roughshod over the evidence and is a slap in the face for food and drink manufacturers, the advertising sector and small business. Obesity is undoubtedly a serious public health issue. COVID-19 sets in stark relief the impact of obesity on other conditions and the NHS. But the public deserve better. They deserve a Government response which is rooted in the evidence and addresses the complex, multi-factorial causes of obesity. Yet this, the third Obesity Strategy in recent years, has been driven by the health lobby and represents a missed opportunity.

“In 2019, the Government’s own impact assessment, as acknowledged by Professor Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum, showed ‘scant evidence’* for a TV watershed, while driving a coach and horses through the funding model for commercial broadcasting in the UK and risking jobs in every constituency of the country – for a gain of 1.7 calories* per child per day, the equivalent of half a smartie. The current rules on advertising are comprehensive, effective, evidence-based and proportionate and apply wherever you may see ads, whether on TV, in the street or on public transport. They apply online and in social media. Enforcement of these regulations is overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority and sets a global standard. Advertising exposure to HFSS adverts have reduced by 70% in the past decade, as obesity rates have steadily risen.

“This announcement cuts the legs out from the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, will cost families more at the checkout, denies small businesses the targeted local online advertising on which they now rely and risks jobs at a time when government has elsewhere shown them support. We will be taking the time alongside our members to study the detail of the proposed consultations, but fundamentally reject the premise on which this announcement has been made.”

Sue Eustace, director of public affairs, Advertising Association

“We are bitterly disappointed by the announcement today by the Government that they are to press ahead with measures against advertising that are misguided, unfounded and will be totally ineffective in the fight against obesity. The Government’s very own research has shown that a 9pm watershed ban on HFSS advertising will reduce a child’s calorie intake by a miniscule 1.7 calories per day – the equivalent of half a Smartie.

“The unwarranted and unprecedented ban on online HFSS advertising is a blunt and totally disproportionate measure. It will prevent food and drink businesses large and small up and down the country from being able to advertise and market their products. It will also impact online publishers, with consequences for journalism. Given the already strict rules in place, enforced by the ASA, these new measures would be wrong even in the most favourable economic circumstances, but to impose them during the current climate is an affront to hard-working business owners and is not what would be expected of a Government seeking to create a business-friendly environment.

“These proposed bans on HFSS advertising will not solve the structural inequalities linked to deprivation that cause higher rates of obesity among people, just as attention-grabbing new regulations will not undo decades of under-investment in targeted and community-based health initiatives. Advertising has a unique ability to be part of the solution to obesity by promoting healthy lifestyles, as the recent ‘Eat Them To Defeat Them’ TV campaign to encourage children to eat vegetables shows. It seems the Government has ignored its own research showing how ineffective these proposals would be.”

Paul Bainsfair, director general, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising

“We have always supported the aim of tackling the problem of obesity in the UK but we have always made the case that the introduction of further restrictions on advertising will not help achieve that aim.

“We are deeply disappointed by these proposals. They disregard the evidence – including the Government’s own – on the impact of restrictions on HFSS advertising and will punish the very businesses that have been helping the country get through the Covid-19 crisis, including food manufacturers, retailers and commercial broadcasters and online publishers. They also fail to acknowledge the UK’s highly respected self-regulatory system which already imposes tough rules on the advertising of HFSS products across all media, including TV and online.

“The Government’s own evidence shows that a pre-9pm TV ad ban would reduce children’s calorie consumption by only 1.7 calories a day, ineffective by any standards. It also acknowledges that the direct link between food marketing and obesity is difficult to measure and quantify due to obesity being a multi-factorial condition.

“The proposals come at the worst possible time for the advertising sector and for industry. The Government should be supporting businesses which have been reeling from the Covid-19 crisis, not banning them from advertising their products.

“The Government is encouraging the country to Eat Out to Help Out but at the same time intending to introduce a ban on advertising HFSS products. Advertising fuels the economy and should be used as a key enabler in getting the country’s economy back on its feet. Ad bans will do the opposite.”

The IPA had communicated it’s opposition to the proposals before they were formally announced in two letters to the Prime Minister. One from Director General Paul Bainsfair, and another co-signed with other industry leaders.

Interactive Advertising Bureau UK’s CEO, Jon Mew

“Following the Government’s announcement that it will introduce a ban on online advertising of High Fat, Salt and Sugar foods (HFSS) before 9pm, and potentially at any time of day, by the end of 2022 (pending another industry consultation), IAB UK stands by its previously expressed view that such action disregards prevailing evidence relating to the causes of obesity in favour of tokenistic measures that the Government’s own analysis showed would make little meaningful difference to obesity. It also bluntly fails to recognise digital advertising’s unique ability to target ads away from certain groups, such as children.

“Reducing obesity within the UK is an important priority, and needs a strategy based on sound evidence of what works. Prevailing evidence suggests that online advertising has a negligible impact on obesity rates, with factors such as education and portion control understood to be significantly more effective in addressing the issue. The Government’s own 2017 impact assessment showed that an online ‘watershed’ would reduce children’s calorie intake by a negligible 0.3 calories per day and that the evidence of the impact of advertising on adults’ calorie consumption was, at best, ‘inconclusive’.

“In addition, the fact that the proposed outright ban would only apply online not only suggests an arbitrary approach to an incredibly multifaceted and complex issue, but also creates an unlevel playing field that disproportionately and unjustifiably penalises online media and creates perverse and contradictory outcomes; ad spend could be driven to other media that have much less sophisticated targeting capabilities than are available online. This is particularly so given that the Government’s own impact assessment shows that spend on and volumes of food and drink advertising online are already much lower than on TV and outdoor.

“While the Government’s announcement of the measures points to a WHO report on the impact of HFSS advertising on children, it must be stressed that this report was published in 2008. Since then, the industry has introduced strict rules, enforced by the ASA, that prohibit HFSS ads being targeted at children online – restrictions not taken into account in the data on which the Government’s 2019 impact assessment was based. A move as drastic as a complete online ban of advertising HFSS products – to anyone, at any time – rides roughshod over the self-regulatory advertising codes and must be substantiated by robust evidence. This needs to demonstrate measurable benefits that outweigh the significant costs to business of imposing undue restrictions on its freedom to advertise.

“The consequences of such draconian and unwarranted action will likely be felt across the entire digital ad ecosystem, affecting quality news publishers that are already navigating well-documented challenges and arguably stymying the tentative economic recovery of small businesses that rely on affordable and targeted digital advertising to support their trade.

“Our view is that the case has not been made for a ban on HFSS ads online – whether pre-9pm, or entirely – that will have untold negative consequences without making any meaningful contribution to the Government’s aim of reducing obesity. IAB UK will be responding to the consultation on an outright ban and will publish its response in due course.”

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