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Channel 4's Dispatches: the Advertising Association's response

Big Business versus children. Alarming obesity stats. Undercover footage.

Ian Barber: director of communications at the Advertising Association

Ian Barber: director of communications at the Advertising Association

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When Channel 4's 'Dispatches' approached the Advertising Association to take part in 'Tricks of the Junk Food Business', our instinct was to play it safe. Decline.

The debate is just too polarised, too politicised and emotionally charged. But the questions put to us suggested a one-sided and very familiar story – companies must be prevented from promoting products considered "less-healthy", especially to children.

So we ignored instinct and, during 90 minutes on camera, made the case that advertising freedoms are worth protecting.

That through competition and innovation, they change categories for the better – witness the rise and rise of healthier alternatives and reformulated food brands. That our rules demand extra care and attention when talking to children. And that while critics always look to the statute book for answers, nobody cares more about getting this right than marketers themselves.

In the end we (and many on Twitter) felt the programme did little to elevate the debate, preferring instead to embarrass two companies with a brief that would fail the most rudimentary of responsible marketing codes. 

That’s a real shame, because how we market to children is a live and important debate. It polarises those within our industries, let alone our critics.

And it isn’t going away. Advertising has faced two government reviews in recent years and with an election looming and party manifestos being drawn up, remains firmly on the political agenda.

If these issues touch your business, if you want to know more – and you’re not an undercover reporter – we’d love to hear from you.

Ian Barber is director of communications at the Advertising Association

This article was first published on

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