Shabnum Mustapha: Advertising standards tough on obesity

While it's summer holiday season and we're basking in the good weather, this can also be a time when some of us over-indulge. Sometimes that extra helping of ice cream can be just too tempting.

Parents are a far bigger influence on what children eat

When it comes to what we eat and drink, most would argue that it’s about personal choice and responsibility. But what happens when a significant proportion of the population’s waistbands keep on expanding? Tackling obesity has risen up the political agenda because of the effect it has on people’s health, its cost to the NHS and the impact on the economy. It’s right, therefore, that everyone does their bit to help reduce obesity.

The Scottish Government recently launched its Diet and Healthy Weight Plan with a range of recommendations to reduce obesity. Meanwhile, the UK government published the second part of their Childhood Obesity Plan.

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As the UK’s advertising regulator, we have our part to play too. We have a balancing act to perform between allowing companies to promote the food and drink they produce – ensuring choice for consumers – and the need to protect children from harm. Some say they don’t want to see the “nanny state”; others say the current advertising restrictions don’t go far enough.

In striking the right balance, we need to focus on the evidence which points to a modest link between advertising and children’s food preferences. Because of that link, it’s right that ads for food and soft drinks high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) don’t appear in children’s media.

These ads have been banned in and around children’s TV programmes since 2007. Last year, we extended that ban to non-broadcast media, which includes websites, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, and advergames, recognising that children are spending more time online than they are on TV. The rules also cover outdoor advertising.

Since that new non-broadcast ban came into force, we’ve received only a small number of complaints. We proactively monitor ads and we’ve seen, to date, high levels of compliance. That impression is reinforced by evidence from children’s health campaign organisations, which have only referred a handful of cases.

Of that small number, we’ve banned four ads: A Cadbury’s website which provided a downloadable storybook and activity pack over Easter which promoted branding associated with their chocolate; a Chewits ad which appeared on Facebook and celebrated school exam results; the advergame app Squashies World, which featured images of the sweet; and a KFC ad which promoted Mars Krushems drink next to a primary school.

This week we also banned a Kellogg’s ad for Coco Pops Granola seen during a children’s cartoon on TV for indirectly promoting an HFSS product to children. While the granola product itself isn’t an HFSS product, we ruled that the ad focused too much on branding and messages associated with the original Coco Pops cereal. The decisions show just how strictly the rules are being enforced.

We recognise that society has a stake in making sure regulation around HFSS ads remains effective. That’s why we’ve put out a call for evidence on our regulation of HFSS broadcast ads to make sure we take into account any new evidence. We’re also reviewing our non-broadcast rules a year on since their implementation to make sure they’re working as intended. We’ll report on the outcome this autumn. If further change is needed, we’ll act quickly to deliver it.

While they have a role, advertising restrictions aren’t the silver bullet when it comes to obesity. Children’s exposure to HFSS TV ads reduced by 37 per cent between 2005 and 2009 but we didn’t see a corresponding reduction in childhood obesity.

Factors such as parents’ influence and active lifestyles bear more heavily in determining children’s food preferences. That’s why everyone across society – including parents and schools – needs to join forces. Such a complex problem demands a coordinated response which includes, but goes some way beyond, advertising regulation.

Shabnum Mustapha, Scottish Affairs Lead, Advertising Standards Authority