Junking of ad ban reignites debate


13th December 2022

Once upon a time, this World Cup was meant to mark full-time for pre-watershed fast food advertising. Instead, the government’s blown for extra (extra) time with its second delay of the ban in 6 months.

The ban on junk food advertising was originally penciled in for January 2023 as part of the government’s efforts to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis, and wasn’t just limited to TV. Any product deemed to be high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) was also to be banished from all digital marketing channels, including Facebook, Google, Instagram and Twitter. Now those high calorie snacks will be sticking around on our screens until 2025 at least.

Although the advertising industry welcomed the delay, they weren’t exactly fulsome in their praise. The Advertising Association (AA) reiterated their view that the ban was “the wrong policy” and “will do nothing to tackle obesity”, an opinion that was echoed by the Institute of Advertising Practitioners (IPA) and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA), but was in stark contrast to the response of health campaigners.

The Obesity Health Alliance suggested the idea advertisers needed more time to prepare for the ban was a “flimsy excuse”, and the chair of the BMA’s board of science went further.

Professor David Strain said “For years we have set out the evidence as clearly as we can that the current advertising restrictions are not fit for purpose, and are not protecting children and young people from excessive marketing influence. Moreover the public agree with us, with 74% of people supporting a watershed to stop junk food adverts being shown before 9pm on TV and online.”

So is the junk food ad ban a vital and necessary step to combatting the alarming growth of childhood obesity? Or is it an untargeted, indiscriminate headline-grabber that will have no impact other than to damage the coffers of broadcast advertisers to the tune of £200m a year?

Well, a similar experiment by TfL has achieved encouraging results. Ads for high calorie foods have been banned across the London transport network since 2019, and analysis suggests that it’s directly led to over 90,000 fewer cases of obesity than expected.

It puts a hole in the chief criticisms of the proposed ad ban, namely that it wouldn’t have any effect. After all, if an advertising ban wouldn’t impact the sales and consumption of junk food, what would be the point of advertising it in the first place?

It’s also important to note that the ban wouldn’t prohibit all advertisements by junk food retailers – businesses producing HFSS products would still be able to promote their brand and their healthy products pre-watershed.

Instead of fighting a public opinion battle that they can’t win, perhaps brands should be using this as an opportunity to reposition themselves as allies in the fight against unhealthy living rather than obstacles.

Or, y’know, just start making healthier snacks.

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