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A load of junk?

Snack manufacturers and advertisers are under the spotlight as obesity problems spiral out of control, but are they really responsible for such social dilemmas?

Snack manufacturers and advertisers are under the spotlight as obesity problems spiral out of control, but are they really responsible for such social dilemmas?

There's no getting away from the obesity issue regardless of whether you are fat, thin, lean or well built. The fact is obesity is a problem which hits the headlines on a daily basis, with stories from healthy eating programmes for children to traffic light systems taking precedence. But who is to blame? And what role does the advertising industry really play here?

Advertisers and food manufacturers are certainly in the spotlight when it comes to pointing the finger, but will banning snack advertising really make a difference?

According to Affiniti's commercial director Chris Doyle, it won't make any difference to the obesity problems. It won't do anything because the problem is down to people who do less physical exercise than ever before. We don't eat that differently today compared to how we used to in the past except eat more processed food.

Doyle argues that people will always eat fatty, sugary food because that's what people do, so implementing such changes such as banning snack/soft drinks advertising will make little difference.

It's the same with the new traffic lights system for food advertising says Doyle. All food advertising and packaging could well have to display a traffic light system if government proposals to combat obesity are passed. A green symbol would indicate healthy food; amber would signify some poor nutritional content and a red light would mean the product contains either too much salt, sugar or fat.

Says Doyle: You can either opt for Tesco's finest, which contains loads of fat, or the healthy range. At the end of the day Tesco's finest is for treats but we're not going to run to the supermarket to buy it ñ we'll drive there!

Creating desire

Ila Garner-Patel, managing director of Brand X says that if the traffic light labelling system is about education for children or adults then it's a good thing. However, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing because something is not necessarily all good or all bad.

But on the subject of who's to blame, Garner-Patel is honest: When we advertise we create a desire ñ whether that be for food or not ñ so I would balk at the idea of standing up and saying snack advertising has no impact.

Besides this, Garner-Patel believes the potential similarities between snack advertising and healthcare advertising are evident. A lot of healthcare advertising is to inform and we're talking to an audience who wants to be informed - there's not a lot of difference between this and snack advertising.

The healthcare advertising industry, explains Garner-Patel, is very well regulated so you could argue that food manufacturers may well have to operate in the same way. We always have to take into account evidence of safety, but nothing is ever the truth unless there is compelling evidence to back it up.

If an advertising agency wins an account they simply do what is asked of them whether there are guidelines or not. We operate under ABPI and MHRA regulations so I don't see any difference between the two industries working under similar guidelines. If you are asked to create a campaign within Government guidelines, you still take on the account and get on with it, stresses Garner-Patel.

Doyle has his own opinion: I don't think it's up to the advertising industry to be more responsible when it comes to advertising and obesity because I don't think it's their job, but with companies such as Kraft Foods banning advertising sugary snacks - well that's just a laudable PR move.

The advertising market is massive, continues Doyle, so such bans make no odds to the food and drinks market. But on the positive front it will benefit healthcare advertising. The only impact on healthcare advertising is that it will benefit from the obesity hysteria, because people will become more aware of obesity and therefore of the treatments being advertised.

Voluntary deadline

Meanwhile, the government has ordered the food and advertising industries to draw up tough new codes on junk-food ads by this summer. John Reid has renewed the threat of legislation to ban junk-food commercials if the new codes have not proved effective when the government reviews their impact in 2007.

Advertisers must introduce a new voluntary code for junk food advertising aimed at children. In the government's Health White Paper, Choosing Health - launched last November - the Department of Health also states that advertisers must be able to prove that the measures adopted by the new code are working.

If by early 2007 they have failed to produce changes in the nature and balance of food promotion, we will take action through existing powers or new legislation to implement a clearly defined framework for regulating the promotion of food to children, the paper warns.

The paper also recommends that junk food advertising aimed at children is not broadcast before the 9pm watershed and that cartoon characters and celebrities should not appear in them. Restrictions also apply to print and outdoor advertisements.

Advertising regulators have already reacted angrily to such measures. Jeremy Preston, director of the Food Advertising Unit at the Advertising Association branded the changes as window-dressing, and ISBA the voice of British Advertisers were equally unimpressed. It pointed out that there is no evidence linking advertising with obesity and that an advertising ban would have no significant effect either in changing people's diets or in tackling the wider causes of increasing obesity levels.

IPA's legal director Marina Palomba agrees: Ultimately censorship is only justifiable in any area if there is sound evidence that such drastic steps that impinge on consumer choice free competition and freedom of commercial expression.

While the IPA embraces the need to protect vulnerable groups there is little or no evidence that the proposed advertising restrictions would have the desired effect on obesity levels. Indeed bans are not only ineffective but can be counter productive damaging consumer choice, information and healthy competition.

Affiniti's Doyle sums it up: No one expects food and drink to be regulated because they like it too much, but at the end of the day it's the person who eats it that's to blame and no one else.

The Author
Penny Palmer is editor of the Directory of Advertising Agencies

2nd September 2008

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