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Advertising regulator caves in to industry

22nd May 2006

It has taken over two years for Ofcom to suggest how it might regulate junk food ads aimed at children. Quite frankly, it wasn’t worth the wait, says Richard Watts of the Children’s Food Bill campaign.

Back in 2003 concerns were mounting over food quality and childhood obesity, and an extensive House of Commons select committee enquiry on obesity concluded that junk food marketing should be controlled to prevent chronic diet-related diseases.

The Food Commission’s Parents Jury had made its mark, spotlighting unhealthy children’s food products and marketing practices. The Government bowed to public pressure and asked the communication regulator Ofcom to look at options to restrict junk food advertising aimed at children.

A mere two and a half years later, and Ofcom has finally published its consultation document. It wasn't worth the wait.

Ofcom has suggested four options to protect children from junk food TV adverts but have completely ruled out the one option that all health, consumer and food groups have called for in one of the most coordinated and far-reaching public campaign coalitions in decades. What over 100 national health organisations agreed upon was that the regulator should protect children from junk food ads right up to the 9pm watershed.

This option would, the coalition argue, significantly reduce children's exposure to junk food adverts and allow concerned parents to exercise responsibility over whether their children see such ads at all. Yet the option has not even been put forward by Ofcom for public consideration. This is choice editing at its most extreme. Instead, Ofcom’s options are:

  1. Junk food ads be limited during children’s television and a few other times. For some reason, Ofcom has defined ‘children’ for this purpose as aged four to nine. See the box on the right for how the Food Magazine reacts to this proposal. Given that the commercial TV programmes most watched by children (aged up to 16) are in the key early evening slot (such as Coronation Street and The Bill) this is likely simply to cause a shift in the way junk foods are advertised, with advertisements moving from 5pm to 7.30pm.
  2. Ofcom's second option rather bizarrely proposes the same regulation on the timing of adverts as above but for healthy food as well as junk food. When pushed, Ofcom has admitted that they included this option under pressure from the junk food industry who still refuse to admit there is such a thing as a 'good' or 'bad' food. One out, all out, the junk food manufacturers want us to say. Yet health organisations have always argued for healthy foods to be given the clear benefit of being able to be marketed to children, to help redress dietary balance. A balanced option is not on offer from Ofcom here.
  3. The third option also includes ‘good’ food advertising and suggests that food can only be advertised for set amounts of time every hour (e.g. for two minutes every hour). This option still allows junk food to be advertised during children's TV and will inevitably favour the largest food and drink manufacturers who will be able to outbid smaller manufacturers for the limited advertising time available. As readers of the Food Magazine will know from long experience, the larger manufacturers do not necessarily produce the healthiest food and drink products for children!
  4. Ofcom's fourth option is, amazingly, an open invitation to industry to come up with their own package of measures.

Despite admitting that the health benefits flowing from a pre-watershed ban would save the nation up to four times the amount of money it would lose TV companies, Ofcom described this option as ‘disproportionate’. Translating government-speak, this means that they think industry will lose out if stricter measures are implemented. In this case, introducing the notion of 'proportionality' means a trade-off between children's health and TV company profit.

Ofcom has also ruled out pre-watershed controls because it claims parents are against it. However even its own poll shows twice as many parents support this idea as oppose it.

Cartoon image of man representing the Junk Food Federation“We have deep pockets gentlemen, and Ofcom's in one of them!”

Neither of Ofcom's reasons to rule out the pre-watershed ban hold water and yet the regulator has ruled out the only effective way of protecting children from junk food adverts. But maybe Ofcom aren't really an independent regulator at all. We placed a Freedom of Information request, which showed that Ofcom consulted industry groups 29 times when it drew-up its proposals, compared to just four meetings with health and consumer groups.

Until now, Ofcom's way of doing business has been to do cosy deals with broadcasters behind closed doors. This style of regulation means they are umbilically linked with industry. Health, food and consumer campaigners had to fight even to meet Ofcom in the first place and it is clear their views have been ignored as Ofcom formulated its proposals. For Ofcom, consultation is a sham.

Despite Ofcom's weak recommendations Sustain’s Chidren’s Food Bill will continue to campaign to ensure children are protected from junk food advertising.

With the recent announcement that one in three UK children is now obese or overweight there is still a very great deal at stake.

Further information

Richard Watts is the campaign coordinator for the Children's Food Bill. Contact: Sustain, 94 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF

The Children's Food Bill - Sign the petition to tell Ofcom and the Government that you want children to be protected form junk food adverts. http://www.sustainweb.org/childrensfoodcampaign/