The independent regulator and competition authority Ofcom for the UK communications industries announced new restrictions on the television advertising of food and drink products to children last week. No way was Ofcom ever going to win, argues Bernice Hurst.
For starters, the processed food and mass manufactured snacks children eat are only one cause of obesity. Their tastes, behaviour, size and shape are indisputably influenced by the food industry (why else keep spending money advertising to them?) but by no means exclusively. Removing, or partially removing, just one element simply cannot solve a far bigger problem.
It was never part of Ofcom’s remit to address the issue within its overall context, the main reason why whatever it came up with couldn’t possibly be adequate. Restrictions on television advertising of food high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) to children should always have been recognised as one part only of what is needed.
On top of that, codicils and loopholes will reduce what the restrictions achieve. Advertisers have already found alternative paths to reaching children. Ofcom’s use of terms such as “reduce significantly”, “proportionate means” and “responsible advertising” are open to much delay-causing debate as are references to securing television programmes of “high quality and wide appeal”.
Responsibility for implementation has been delegated, at least in part, to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) by saying that the restrictions will be based on its Nutrient Profiling scheme. This, too, has stimulated argument because some HFSS foods are unfairly classified as “junk” while others are excused because of perceptions that they are healthy.
Some of the protests were entirely predictable, especially those decrying the potential loss of funding for original children’s programming. This may well have happened anyway as advertising migrated to other media. Consumer organisations such as the National Federation of Women’s Institutes still insist, however, that levels of permissible advertising are weighted more favourably towards profits than children’s wellbeing.
Ofcom’s investigations apparently didn’t generate sufficient confidence in industry assertions that they could, and should, regulate themselves. Instead, it was decided that something need to be said, and done, from outside. The limited remit for television only doesn’t nullify Ofcom’s efforts.
Food companies raised barely a whimper over the clauses relating to celebrities and cartoon characters; they had more or less dealt with this already and voluntarily. On the other side of the fence, protesters argued that brands were not banned, leaving opportunities for companies to promote themselves as long as they steer clear of mentioning specific products.
What Ofcom has done is provoke discussion and instigate change. Its consultation process enabled everyone from consumers to manufacturers, retailers and broadcasters to have their say. Broadening the age range covered from under-9 to under-16 has extended the consultation period. Reviews of all the current restrictions are scheduled for Autumn 2008.
Most industry stakeholders are now aware of the tangled web that has created the situation and which must be addressed if serious changes are to be made. This ruling has begun a process that will not necessarily have a direct and measurable impact on childhood obesity or lifestyles. But it is to be hoped that it has triggered a reaction that will eventually have a more significant impact. The ruling is not a solution or the end of a global problem. With a bit of luck and goodwill, however, it may be the beginning of the end.