While children’s advertising is one of the most politically charged issues facing the food industry, recent statements from regulatory authorities in both the US and the UK suggest continued official support for self-regulation. Chris Lyddon reports.

Children’s advertising is one of the most difficult issues the food industry faces but last week’s publication of a report by the US Department of Health and the Federal Trade Commission supports the contention that the industry’s destiny in this area still lies in its own hands.

While the report called for controls on children’s advertising, it said these should be initiated on a voluntary basis and not through legislation.

This significant shot in the arm for self-regulation stateside followed last month’s announcement by the UK communications regulator OfCom that a wide consultation on the restriction of children’s food advertising would continue to involve the industry.

The implication is that regulators in the UK are also loath to move towards legislation. Ofcom chief executive Stephen Carter said: “Proposals to increase regulation in open and competitive markets should always be subject to rigorous scrutiny. With childhood obesity, the case for targeted action has been made; but which action – and how this should be implemented – is the focus for this final stage of consultation.”

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Ofcom has been accused by UK campaign groups, such as Sustain, of taking too soft a line on the issue, and the emphasis on self-regulation in the US will also have dismayed some pressure groups, but the industry’s own lobbyists can surely take heart from recent events.

Jeanette Longfield, Spokeswoman for Sustain, was sharply critical of Ofcom’s approach. Sustain believes that the proposals do not go far enough. “It’s horrible,” she told just-food. “It’s weak, pathetic and puts the interests of the junk food industry before children’s health.”

She added: “A huge amount of research backs up what we think is blindingly obvious to people with kids,” she said. “It’s immensely powerful.  The junk food companies wouldn’t be spending all this money if it wasn’t.”

But Suzanne Edmond of the Food Advertising Unit, which represents advertisers, media companies and advertising agencies in the debate, said priority should be given to encouraging people to live healthier lifestyles, and the industry was actively involved in helping to bring this about. A social marketing campaign was planned, Edmond said, which would be part of the government’s ‘Small Change, Big Difference’ push, designed to get people to make small changes in diet and take more exercise.

Edmond also pointed out that the food industry had actually cut its spending on advertising. “As a category within advertising as a whole it’s declining,” she said. “In 2004/2005 advertising by the food and soft drink category did pick up slightly.  That’s because there are new and reformulated foods. There’s been a lot of change in advertising. There are a lot more adverts for products which are lower in salt, sugar and fat.”

However, Edmond observed, there was no indication that this had led to an improvement in diets, further suggesting that advertising was not necessarily the culprit. “The most recent figures showed that BMI (Body Mass Index) had gone up,” Edmond said. “Obesity is going up.”

Perhaps most telling of all, Edmond could point to Ofcom’s own research in asserting that food advertising only had a modest effect on children’s food preferences.

Although Tim Suter of Ofcom said its consultation offered various options, each of which would achieve a significant reduction in the advertising of food and drink to children, writing in the Guardian newspaper, he said: “Our research demonstrated that while there is a direct link between advertising and children’s food choices, it is modest when compared with all the other influences on children, and our proposals reflect that.”

When a regulator appears to be making your case for you, there must be strong grounds for optimism.