Will the UK’s junk food marketing clampdown combat childhood obesity?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Childhood obesity Marketing

The UK Government announced plans to limit the advertising of unhealthy foods last week. The food and advertising industries expressed ‘disappointment’ at ‘draconian’ measures, while health campaigners welcomed the news but voiced concern over possible future loopholes. With so many complex and interlinked issues driving childhood obesity rates, the most important question remains: Will it work?

In 2019, the Government estimated that UK children collectively saw around 2.9bn TV ads and 11bn online impressions promoting foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar. This, ministers concluded, is a major contributor to a food environment that is driving up childhood obesity levels. One-in-three children in the country now leave primary school overweight or obese. 

“The content youngsters see can have an impact on the choices they make and habits they form. With children spending more time online it is vital we act to protect them from unhealthy advertising,”​ said Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill.

This evaluation prompted UK legislators to take a massive leap in ramping up restrictions of HFSS marketing. From 2023, advertising of HFSS foods and drinks will not be allowed on television before a 9pm watershed.

Going further still, legislators have tackled the thorny subject of online advertising. An online ad ban will affect all paid-for forms of digital marketing, from ads on Facebook to paid-search results on Google, and paid activity from ‘influencers’ on sites such as Instagram and Twitter.

While previous voluntary restrictions were supposed to curtail this kind of HFSS marketing reaching children, the reality of online behavioural segmentation meant this was not always the case -- proving that the devil is in the detail. Implementation will be key.

Indeed, there are some noteworthy loopholes in the proposals. Restrictions will only apply to companies with more than 250 employees, meaning SMEs will be free to continue to advertise as they wish.

More significant, given the scale of budgets involved, online restrictions are only limited to paid-for advertising. This ensures brands can ‘continue to advertise within owned media spaces online’, the government noted. In practice, HFSS foods and beverages can continue to be pushed in a brand’s blog, website, app or social media page.

“We remain concerned that the proposals will still allow massive multinational junk food companies and delivery platforms to run big brand campaigns,”​ stressed Barbara Crowther, Sustain’s Children's Food Campaign Co-ordinator.

A ‘draconian’ measure stifling innovation?

The food and advertising industries have not responded favourably to the new restrictions, which they say fail to reward manufacturers who have invested in reformulation.

The Food and Drink Federation suggested ‘the proposals would make it difficult to advertise many products that have been carefully reformulated or created in smaller packaging’. The implicit concern is that without the reward of higher sales, advertising delivers the incentive to invest in reformulation and the risk of consumer pushback at reformulated products will stifle such efforts. 

The Advertising Association took a similar stance when it said it was ‘dismayed’ by the news.

“This means many food and drink companies won’t be able to advertise new product innovations and reformulations,”​ argued Sue Eustace, AA Public Affairs Director. “We all want to see a healthier, more active population, but the Government’s own analysis shows these measures won’t work.”

The News Media Association was more scathing still, describing the move as a ‘draconian measure’ that will ‘harm news media publishers instead of tackling the problem of childhood obesity’.

Like Sustain, NMA Legal, Policy and Regulatory Affairs Director Sayra Tekin said there was concern over loopholes. News media was ‘collateral damage’ in a policy from which ‘perversely, given the carve outs, the likes of Facebook will continue to benefit’, Tekin claimed.

ISBA director-general Phil Smith added: “Advertisers agree that Britain has an obesity problem and that action must be taken. But in seeking to regulate rather than innovate, government has tied itself in knots.

“There is no evidence that what Ministers are proposing will have any meaningful impact on children’s health. The possibilities of technology have been ignored, and industry’s attempts to deliver the desired outcome in a way which would also prevent economic harm to business have been waved away.”

The UK government would likely disagree with Smith on this point. Announcing the plan, the Department of Health and Social Care said ‘evidence shows exposure to HFSS advertising can affect when children eat and what they eat’.

The health agency was optimistic about the number of calories the restrictions could remove from the diets of UK youngsters.

“The TV and online restrictions could remove up to 7.2bn calories from children’s diets per year in the UK which, over the coming years, could reduce the number of obese children by more than 20,000.”

For Chris Holmes, Founder of healthy eating app SMASH and former director at KFC, there is certainly an urgent need to change the food environment. However, he thinks the gulf between business and regulation on this issue will prove a ‘fatal flaw’.

“The businesses that control the food environment are not engaged in this process, and as a result, strategies like this ban on junk food ads will fail to move the needle,​” he argued.

Tax reform and fiscal tools to ‘promote the good’

If restrictions will only get you so far, what policy measures does Holmes advocate?

“There is a place for regulation, but nothing is as powerful as consumer demand in shaping industry trends. We need to use the carrot and the stick to incentivise food brands to make products healthier and put marketing spend behind them, so that they are commercially viable for business. We need to shift the narrative away from ‘ban the bad’, and begin also to ‘promote the good’.”

When the sugar tax was introduced in the country, many industry commentators argued it was a blunt tool to tackle obesity and stimulate reformulation. The proof was in the pudding – the tax proved a massive spur of reformulation and innovation.

Holmes wants the sugar tax approach to be turned on its head, with tax breaks offered to support sales of better-for-you products. For healthy foods to be commercially viable, proof is needed that promotion can be used as a lever to drive volumes, he explained.

Creative approaches to financial levers could therefore prove helpful policy instruments. “We believe that over time, with a body of data that can prove that financial incentives motivate behaviour, we’d like to think that this might help influence reforms in the VAT system. To put it crudely, we could move from a system that taxes hot vs cold food to a system that gives better-for-you food a sustainable price advantage, whatever the occasion."

A ripple effect for population-wide benefits

If the drivers of childhood obesity are myriad and complex, it is overly simplistic to hope the ad ban represents a magic bullet.

Nevertheless Jack Winkler, a Professor of Nutrition Policy formerly of London Metropolitan University, is hopeful that the policy will have a knock-on impact, encouraging manufacturers to step up reformulation like the sugar tax before it.

"Protecting children is the common justification for many nutrition policies, including the current obesity strategy, as well advertising controls. It is not censorship, not telling people what to eat. It is also a worthwhile objective in itself. And sometimes it works, in part. But there are many influences on children's food choices, as with adults. So obesity rates remain high,”​ he explained.

“Much less discussed in public, by politicians or even campaigners, is a second objective -- to stimulate companies to reformulate their products, so they can continue to advertise them. Change supply as well as demand. Reformulation of popular products has another major advantage -- it benefits everyone, not just the worried well. Even those who hate the whole idea of ‘healthy eating’ and the ‘nanny state’.”

Sustain’s Crowther threw down the gauntlet, calling on industry to leverage its innovation might: “The food and drink and advertising industries constantly proclaim their own creativity and innovation - this is a great opportunity for them to now turn those talents to the promotion of healthier food and drink products and lifestyles.”

Only time will tell whether the UK’s junk food ad ban will have the desired impact. That proponents and detractors of the new advertising restrictions both back innovation as a solution to the childhood obesity crisis should perhaps be our greatest cause for optimism.

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