Ads can inform, entertain and promote choice, as well as fund the media, sport and culture we all enjoy. But they can also, occasionally, be divisive. For instance, they can prompt concerns about their impact and whether they have the potential to be harmful or irresponsible. It’s these concerns that have generated an ongoing debate around food advertising and children.
The debates about food advertising to children, or more specifically ads for less healthy products, are inextricably linked with wider societal concerns about childhood obesity. As such, various campaign groups and health bodies are actively calling for tighter restrictions around this type of advertising, believing it to have a negative impact on children’s health.
We’re alive to these concerns. The issue of food and drink advertising to children is an important one and a key focus of our policy and enforcement work. Importantly, the protection of children sits at the heart of our work, and reflecting this there are strict, product specific rules, including for food and soft drinks.
Strongly held views
Some health campaigners believe advertising of food and drink to children is harmful and question why we don’t introduce tougher rules or an outright ban.
First and foremost, the rules are already strict and have long prohibited any ad from encouraging poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children.
Most experts agree that advertising does have some impact, but the evidence is that the impact is very small.
Professor David Buckingham
It is not unusual for views to differ about the scope and nature of the rules governing advertising. We often find ourselves in the middle of competing and equally fervent viewpoints about whether the ad rules are too permissive or restrictive. Just as there are numerous campaigning groups who call for advertising bans or further restrictions around various products and services, there are also companies and groups who argue that advertising rules should be liberalised.
It’s our job as the advertising regulator to make sure that we maintain a balanced approach, taking into account competing views but all the while making sure the rules are based on evidence.
A brief guide to the food advertising rules
So what are the current food advertising rules and how did they come about?
Both the broadcast and non-broadcast Advertising Codes were significantly tightened in 2007. This followed the publication of a Department of Health ‘Choosing Health’ White Paper which included a call for the strengthening of the advertising food rules to children, particularly on TV as part of a package of measures aimed at reducing obesity and improving diet and nutrition.
Although both Codes are closely aligned, the rules differ slightly. While the Broadcast Code categorises some foods as High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS) for TV, it doesn’t do so for radio and nor does the Non-broadcast Code for non-broadcast media. The radio and non-broadcast rules apply restrictions to ads for all food and drink products except for fresh fruit and vegetables.
Evidence based and proportionate regulation
But if children are prevented from seeing ads for HFSS products on TV, how come they’re allowed to see or hear them in other media?
The rules differ because, as the available evidence shows, media differ; with TV having the most persuasive, albeit moderate, impact on children’s food preferences.
This issue is far from black and white. It’s important to note that the restrictions around TV ads for HFSS products do not stop children from seeing HFSS TV ads completely, and this is because such an absolute restriction would have been disproportionate to the evidence around advertising’s impact on food choices.
The complexity of this debate is perhaps best demonstrated by the key findings from the work of Professor David Buckingham, The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing. Carried out on behalf of the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it found that on the issue of obesity and the role of marketing:
“Expert opinion is divided on this issue. Most experts agree that advertising does have some impact, but the evidence is that the impact is very small. [Also], food choice is only one factor in obesity; and other factors – such as the availability and price of food, the influence of parents, patterns of physical activity, and the lack of access to outdoor play areas – play a much greater role.”
Professor Buckingham’s report also states:
“… we found a surprisingly small amount of reliable evidence relating specifically to television advertising and to obesity.”
Crucially, then, the role that advertising plays in childhood obesity is generally understood to be small relative to other prominent factors that influence children’s food preferences such as parental or guardian choices and physical exercise.
The rules are designed to include restrictions that are proportionate to the role that advertising may play in childhood obesity. If we see evidence that suggests the rules need to go further then we will not hesitate to take action. To date we haven’t seen evidence that, in and of itself, advertising of HFSS products in non-broadcast media is problematic.