A post by Stephen Woodford, Chief Executive, Advertising Association 

On Tuesday, I appeared before the House of Commons Health & Social Care Committee representing the UK ad industry as part of its inquiry into childhood obesity. The Advertising Association had previously submitted written evidence to the Committee on advertising and its impact on childhood obesity and we were called to give evidence along with other representatives from across the spectrum of opinion. Alongside me on the panel were Shahriar Coupal (Director of Advertising Policy and Practice, Advertising Standards Authority), Dan Parker (Chief Executive of the charity Living Loud) Professor Russell Viner (Obesity Health Alliance), Dr Emma Boyland (Senior Psychology Lecturer, Institute of Psychology, Health and Societies, University of Liverpool).

During the session, some misleading and false information was relayed to the Committee and subsequently reported in the media. While several media outlets highlighted the strength of the current rules protecting children, the inefficacy of a potential pre-watershed ban and that advertising has very little effect on food preferences and obesity; much of the coverage reported remarks made that we know to be inaccurate. These incorrect interpretations of the current rules on advertising HFSS (high fat, salt & sugar) food & drink products include:

• That the rules don’t extend to online platforms. The reality is that all platforms and environments where children might see ads are covered by the regulations, whether on TV, online, on social media, on the street or on public transport.

• That not all children are covered by the protections currently in place. In fact, existing UK rules mean that ads for products cannot be targeted at children up to the age of 16 in any media and content cannot be designed to appeal to them.

• The claim that HFSS ads should be treated like ‘pornography’ and programmes that include ‘violent’ content. This statement is neither accurate nor proportionate and risks sensationalising a serious subject.

• The assertion that the Advertising Standards Authority is an industry body and therefore not a regulator as most people would understand the term. On the contrary, in broadcasting the ASA is in co-regulation with Ofcom – the statutory regulator – and in non-broadcast the ASA is the established means for consumer protection regulations, recognised by the Government as such.

We have taken steps to correct these inaccuracies reported in the press, but it is important to reiterate that the advertising industry takes the challenge of childhood obesity in the UK very seriously. We are determined to play our part in making sure the children of today grow to enjoy the best health possible.

The current rules are among the strictest in the world. Where there are rules in place, most countries’ are aimed at under 12s and some at under 13s. Only two countries, the UK and Peru, set the highest bar of under 16. These regulations are enforced rigorously by the ASA. In fact, the UK’s self- and co- regulatory system has been in place for over 50 years and is the international gold standard. It is responsible and responds quickly to new evidence.

The consequences of the swingeing advertising restrictions being proposed are extensive – they wouldn’t just limit products traditionally perceived as HFSS (such as crisps, burgers and chocolates), but also a wide range of everyday household products could not be advertised to adults – from olive oil, butter, certain margarines and spreads, to certain cheeses and a number of store cupboard ingredients that we all use in our daily lives.

A pre-9pm watershed ban would be disproportionate as it would remove adverts targeted at adult audiences and severely limit the ability of adults to view ads for products they might want. It was rejected 10 years ago by Ofcom as disproportionate, inefficient and ineffective. Changing media consumption since then means that a pre-9pm watershed ban would arguably be even more ineffective now.

Advertising is a hugely important part of the economy. It increases competition between brands and stimulates innovation and reformulation, creating more consumer choice and lowering prices. As an industry, we support nearly 1,000,000 jobs right across the UK and finance British culture, media content and sport valued at £10 billion a year. Every £1 spent on advertising contributes £6 to UK GDP – over £120bn each year. An advertising ban would have little impact on wider societal problems but would have unintended consequences for jobs, the economy and the great British creative content we all enjoy.

Obesity is caused by the interaction of many complex factors and requires a multi-faceted solution to help people change their diet and exercise patters. I believe that encouraging knowledge and changing behaviour among people would be the best option and would lead to a reduction in childhood obesity. And the UK advertising and media industries can play a vital role in achieving this. Simple, cost-free and social exercise initiatives in schools and communities, such as the Daily Mile – now supported by ITV – are successful and can help tackle obesity and overweight among children. Similarly, intervention programmes such as that in Amsterdam demonstrate that working directly with the affected communities to change a whole range of behaviours is the solution that delivers the best and most lasting results.

It’s important that everyone involved in this hugely important debate around childhood obesity realises that any decision about ad restrictions that is neither proportionate nor evidence-based will not only be ineffective, but would be damaging to jobs, choice and the media we all enjoy. Let’s all work together to get this right for the children of tomorrow and meet the challenge of childhood obesity head on.