Do we need a ban on junk food ads?
Obesity is a serious issue; child obesity even more so. There is no debating the fact this is a problem which needs addressing head-on.
However, the proposed method of treating the issue, namely the broadening of the currentadvertising ban of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) suggested by the BHF last week, has put the spotlight on various wider issues, begging the questions:
- Will cutting advertising out in this way reduce child obesity?
- Will it stop parents giving their children, or allowing them to have, HFSS food and drink?
- Is banning right – and are we banning the right things?
- Should there be a ban on sedentary games such as console and computer games?
To start with, for any ban to work, the public has to know exactly what is being banned. The problem with unhealthy or "junk" food is there is no absolute, as there is with smoking or alcohol. The British Heart Foundation’s request for bans in line with the Food Standards Agency’s nutrient profiling model is great in principle, but this doesn’t help shoppers (often mums) make more informed choices.
The banning approach seems to go against the nudge principles being applied in the government’s highly successful Change4Life programme, where a combination of education and motivation helps consumers make the changes needed to live a healthier life.
This nudge approach has been hugely successful, with Change4Life’s 2010 campaign alone hitting 99% of its target. It resonates by tapping into a wider consumption trend of ‘Permissibility’ which sees us taking more and more control over what we consume, understanding ourselves as human machines operating on a system of activity credits and calorie debits.
The drive for healthier eating wouldn’t be possible without communication: clear communication on packs, with codified ways of knowing what the key nutritional content is; clear guidance on how much we should eat and drink; and clear guidance on getting us moving, active and burning calories.
Where are the guidelines, though, for children’s consumption and nutrition levels on all products? A problem clearly presents itself in recommending allowances for children, as these will vary far more according to age, gender and physical activity levels than they do in adults.
But does that really make a complete ban a wiser approach than compulsory education on the subject? With the right education, consumer demand for foods they know to be bad for them will reduce. Likewise, new products which both clearly communicate and have good nutritional value and taste will grow. Brands will only create products while there is a commercial market for them.
This ban is about advertising to children who aren’t yet necessarily able to make their own decisions or discernments. So, if we follow the ban route, should we ban HFSS foods for the under-16s altogether? Should we ban the products from being promoted, but also ban them from being sold to anyone under 16 or without ID?
Or would it be better to insist that all HFSS products are marketed clearly and have a responsibility to promote active lives and balanced diets? Let’s legislate for an ethical approach that instills responsibility in all points of communication, including the packs.
Brand money can do a lot of good for all, including children, if it is used and legislated for in the right way. I grew up doing the Coca-Cola Soccer Skills badges – a scheme that would not have happened without the brand’s funding. Banning a soft-drink advert in children’s TV programming assumes no child has ever been in the room on a Sunday when dad’s half-time football ads feature the soft drink aimed at adults. It’s just not real.
If children can’t receive messages in the same way as adults, as the research the BHF points at suggests, then ethically we shouldn’t be advertising to them at this age at all unless the information is couched in their genuine benefit. Why is the promotion of sedentary, non-calorie-burning toys and computer games OK, but the advertising of HFSS foods not?
Some food for thought, I think.
Toby Richards is strategy director at Cubo.
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