New UK advertising rules: tighter or full of holes?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Advertising rules need to reflect media trends of today - 96% of 12 to 15 year-olds spend more time online than watching TV, according to research from Ofcom last year .© iStock
Advertising rules need to reflect media trends of today - 96% of 12 to 15 year-olds spend more time online than watching TV, according to research from Ofcom last year .© iStock

Related tags Childhood obesity Nutrition Obesity

The UK is considering banning the advertising of junk foods to kids in any medium. Restrictions on using characters could however be relaxed provided they are used to push "healthier” products.

The proposals, part of a consultation launched by the UK’s Committee on Advertising Practice, CAP, have been welcomed by industry as “an example of voluntary industry action moving faster and further than regulation can”.

But campaigners have panned the changes as a “let down”​ compared to the “brave and bold”​ action from the UK government to introduce a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks.

The new rules are “what industry will just about accept”​ rather than what’s needed to tackle childhood obesity, one group told FoodNavigator.

Action stations

The guidelines include a new rule to limit where advertising for high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) food and soft drink products can be placed in all non-broadcast media – both digital and more traditional channels like billboards.

The body also wants to explore whether the new rules should be applied to children under the age or 12 or 16.

Some rules could also be relaxed, with CAP considering whether bans on the use of licensed characters and celebrities should only apply to junk food. This would allow “more creative ways”​ for healthier foods to be advertised to children, it said.

Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the UK-based Children’s Food Campaign, said there needs to be a debate around how to promote healthy foods to children but that isn’t quite what CAP has proposed.

The consultation, he said, considers whether to only apply the bans on character licensing and celebrities to HFSS products. There are many products that come just underneath the threshold for HFSS that could therefore be marketed in this way, he explained.

The UK government is about to launch a review of its nutrient profiling model, which it uses to differentiate foods. This follows the recommendations of the SACN report on sugar​.​ CAP won’t automatically adopt any new model, however, with significant implications likely to lead to a consultation.

“There are too many gaps in the detail of the consultation and scope for the rules to be weakened and exemptions given to industry,”​ Clark said, “and I wonder whether the regulator [the Advertising Standards Authority] has the resources, nous and gumption to go after brands.”

Small impact

CAP said it is taking action in response to wider societal concerns around childhood obesity, as well as the need to ensure the advertising rules reflect changing media habits amongst young people.

The growth in popularity of the internet has changed the way children interact with the commercial world, CAP explained, citing research from Ofcom​last year that showed 96% of 12 to 15 year-olds spent more time online than watching TV.

CAP said its proposed changes​ could have a “relatively small positive impact”​ but make a “meaningful contribution”​ to tackling obesity. Advertising has only a “modest effect​” on children’s food preferences, it noted, with exercise and parental influence having “greater roles” in the causes of and solutions to obesity.

Chairman James Best said the proposals “strike the right balance”​ between addressing childhood obesity and allowing brands to continue to advertise their products responsibly. “Advertising is just one small factor in a very complex equation,”​ he noted.

The Food & Drink Federation backed the proposals. “We live in a digital age,”​ said corporate affairs director Tim Rycroft. "We support a change to the current code which would ensure that ads for foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt are not targeted at under-16s in any medium, including online.”

The UK government recently delayed its Childhood Obesity Strategy​,​ which could also include changes to advertising rules. 

Is a restriction on marketing unhealthy food really the best way to tackle the obesity crisis?

FoodNavigator is hosting an online event on Obesity and Weight Management on 25 May where the issues will be debated by top industry players, academics, nutritionists and public health campaigners.

Sign up for free here​ and be part of the debate.


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1 comment


Posted by Bob Salmon,

So what is a "junk food"? There is no such thing as a bad food, only bad diets. Is honey to be counted as bad? Someone has not thought this one through. We are still in the EU this week and so subject to their laws on advertising.

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