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Food and soft drink advertising

Food hot topic

We appear to have an increasingly complicated relationship with food. Premium or economy? Organic or inorganic? Free range or intensively reared? Fair deal for farmers or low cost for consumers? But when it comes to ads for food and drink it gets even more complex. 

While ads may serve to inform consumers about tasty new options, price or the nutritional benefit of a product they can also get people hot under the collar, particularly when it comes to concerns about the nation’s ever expanding waistline. 

Though most would agree that advertising informs and promotes consumer choice, not everyone is happy that some food and drink choices can be promoted in the first place. For instance, critics of ads for ‘unhealthy’ food have called for restrictions or even outright bans of advertising for these products. In particular, they cite concerns about the impact these ads have on children’s health. 

But are food and drink ads, in part, responsible for the increase in childhood obesity? Do ads contribute in any meaningful way to less healthy lifestyles? How far can advertisers go when making health claims for foods? These are some of the debates that continue to face Government, health professionals, consumers, industry and ultimately the ASA. 

The ASA is fully aware of these concerns. In particular we are committed to ensuring ads do not contain anything that is likely to result in a child’s physical, mental or moral harm. We are not, however, a social engineer, and it is not our role to say whether a legally available product or service is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We are responsible for making sure that they are advertised within the rules. 

And those rules have been significantly strengthened. In 2007 the ad industry responded to concerns and criticisms by introducing new stricter advertising rules around food and soft drink. The rules apply to under 16s, though they also contain an extra layer of restrictions for children of primary school age and younger. 

The current strict rules already prohibit any ad from encouraging poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children. But we continue to listen carefully to the debates around this topic. With radical changes in the media landscape, we know we can’t rest on our laurels. That’s why in February 2014 we announced our intention to conduct new research and compliance work to ensure that the regulation of food and soft drink advertising continues to be effective and proportionate, particularly when it comes to protecting children.

Another key aspect of advertising in this sector is the promotion of the health benefits of foodstuffs. Advertisers are, of course, entitled to bring to the public’s attention the nutritional worth of their products if they meet the requirements for nutrition or health claims. The rules in place are tough. The Advertising Codes, reflect wide-reaching EU legislation and advertisers must hold evidence for authorised health claims as required by an EU Register. Ultimately, the only health claims which will be acceptable will be those on the Register.

We recognise that there are a broad range of views surrounding food advertising to children but it’s important we take a balanced approach that is proportionate and based on evidence. We’ll report on the findings of our research later this summer to ensure that food and drink advertising is appropriate and responsible.

For further information, please read the ASA Hot Topic on Food and Drink advertising. (PDF)

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