Pressure to dump junk food ads forces marketing rethink

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Related tags: Junk food, Nutrition, Marketing

Pressure to ban junk food adverts on TV in the UK reflects growing
concern over the issue of obesity and is forcing food manufacturers
to reassess their marketing strategies, writes Anthony
Fletcher.

Sustain, a UK food pressure group, has put together a Children's Food Bill which among other things is demanding a total ban on junk food advertising. Fundamentally though, it seeks to change the way food companies can market their products.

"When we started this campaign it was just about the telly,"​ said Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain. "But now its not just a media issue. Products are often targeted through sponsorship of school events."

As far as the pressure groups are concerned, every aspect of food marketing, especially when it comes to children, is up for scrutiny.

The main thing that Sustain is fighting for though is an industry-wide voluntary ban on TV junk food ads aimed at children. Sustain's Children's Food Bill campaign argues that for each year this is delayed, an estimate 40,000 children will become obese.

"Junk food advertising to children is intense,"​ said Charlie Powell, campaign coordinator at Sustain. "The Children's Food Bill would not only protect children, but also provide a level playing field for all food companies."

The Food Commission has also urged the food and advertising industries to accept their responsibility for adding to children's bad eating practices.

"The average child sees more than 5,000 advertisements for junk food every year,"​ said Food Commission director Dr Tim Lobstein last year. "Parents and teachers cannot hope to compete with this barrage of bad messages and corrupting influence. It leads to family friction at meal-times and tearful toddlers in the supermarket."

The food industry is also finding itself increasingly under pressure from legislators as a result of the obesity crisis, which has seen the number of clinically obese in the UK triple in last 20 years. In May 2004, a Select Committee urged an industry-led voluntary withdrawal of TV ads of unhealthy food to children, together with a review of all forms of food promotion.

Many in the food industry however feel that a total ban on junk food advertising would be far too subjective, and would also only address part of the issue of obesity.

"Banning adverts is a simple solution to a complex issue,"​ said Christine Fisk, spokesperson for the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF). "Obesity is not just about food, its about other factors as well. It's about recognising responsibility, but there are other parts of the equation as well."

She cites a recent Ofcom report that found that advertising has only a moderate effect, and points to the FDF's Food and Health Manifesto, published in September 2004, as evidence that the industry is taking the issue of obesity seriously.

"FDF members are committed to working with Ofcom and the government on further tightening of self-regulatory codes,"​ she said. Indeed, the industry argues that the UK food and drink industry has long shown its commitment to responsible advertising practices primarily through adherence to stringent codes of practice.

Longfield is not convinced however. "It's a nonsense, there are no restrictions on TV advertising. And there are no restrictions on a company such as Cadbury's sponsoring sporting activities in schools.

"In addition, the competitive pressures on the industry are such that companies need to steal a march on the competition. You can't ask that nature of beast to voluntarily restrain itself. It is never going to work."

Longfield's position is supported by the Food Commission. "Voluntary bans will not work. We have seen voluntary marketing codes repeatedly broken by baby milk manufacturers, and some of the same companies, such as Nestlé, are involved. It will take a law to make advertising controls stick."

Even if, as Fisk says, a TV ban on junk food would indeed be an overly simplistic answer to a highly complex problem, it would appear that the pressure on the food industry over obesity is such that new means of marketing are inevitable.

Last month, for example, TV celebrity chef Jamie Oliver took the government to task over the state of school dinners. His Feed Me Better campaign, which among other things uncovered the amount of junk food in the average school meal, shocked parents and is now leading the charge for school dinner reform.

The campaign underlines the fact that obesity is now a mainstream political issue, capable of causing political embarrassment and industry pain. The food sector now finds itself accused of contributing to the proliferation of a condition that a House of Commons Select Committee recently estimated was costing the taxpayer £7.4 billion a year.

"When we started this campaign (against junk food advertising), we were focused on future risks, you know, that a child's diet can influence diseases such as heart disease and diabetes later in life,"​ said Longfield.

"But now the issue is obesity, and it is visible today. You can't see furred up arteries, but you can see obesity."

"Many food manufacturers will of course say that 'its not our fault'. But the cleverer ones are tapping into this trend towards healthier eating and putting this into their future product development."

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