Should we ban advertising of fast food before the 9pm watershed? A look at the evidence

By Kurt Wood
27th January 2016
In Depth
 
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A new study conducted at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society confirms that fast food marketing aimed at children is worryingly successful. The more exposure to marketing, both online and on television, the higher the rate of fast food consumption among children.

The marketing of fast food to children has been controversial for some time, but so far limited attempts have been made to regulate it. The biggest contribution to protecting children from junk food marketing was the ban on advertising fast food during programmes aimed at children.[1] But these programmes make up only a small part of a child’s television viewing habits. To combat this, many commentators have suggested a ban on all advertising of unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed. Is it a good idea?

Fast food advertising and children: do the current regulations work?

Perhaps. What is for sure is that the ban on fast food advertising during children’s programming doesn’t cover what are actually children’s peak viewing hours, which takes place in the evenings, around 8pm to 8.30.[2]

So, despite the attempts to regulate advertising during programming aimed at children, those the ban is supposed to protect are still being exposed to massive amounts of fast food advertising. And the advertisers know this, which is why so much of this advertising is aimed at children, with what communications regulator Ofcom describes as “colourful packaging and widespread use of pictures, cartoons and characters.”[3]

How has the food industry responded?

Traditionally, the food industry has responded to the influence of advertising on children by disparaging the link between fast food advertising and increased fast food consumption by children. It has been suggested that advertising only affects which brand of fast food children want – not the amount they eat. But the Liverpool study proves otherwise.

In response, several organisations have called for greater regulation of fast food advertising to combat rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, which are growing amongst children all the time. Study author Dr. Emma Boyland said:

It has been suggested that advertising only affects which brand of fast food children want – not the amount they eat. But the Liverpool study proves otherwise.

“Through our analysis of these published studies I have shown that food advertising doesn’t just affect brand preference – it drives consumption. Given that almost all children in Westernised societies are exposed to large amounts of unhealthy food advertising on a daily basis this is a real concern.

“On the basis of these findings, recommendations for enacting environmental strategies and policy options to reduce children’s exposure to fast food advertising are evidence-based and warranted.”

Fast food advert

Many fast food adverts target children, often by using strategies such as tie-ins with movies aimed at children. Image source: https://guermj64.wordpress.com/2013/11/17/how-do-fast-food-restaurants-advertise-towards-children/

A ban before the watershed

The British Heart Foundation (BHF) has long advocated stricter regulation of advertising in order to protect children. In a report called “The 21st Century Gingerbread House,” the BHF describes a “panoply of techniques to promote brands and products – techniques which many children will find difficult to identify as advertising.”[4] As a result, they have publically called for a pre-watershed ban on fast food marketing aimed at children. Mike Hobday, Policy Director, said: “We mustn’t allow food companies to continue to exploit a failing regulatory system that allows them to bombard TV screens with junk food adverts at the times when the highest numbers of children are watching TV.”

Unsurprisingly, representatives of the food industry have been dismissive of the findings. Tim Rycroft, of the Food and Drink Federation, argues that “We have one of the strictest advertising regulation regimes in the world concerning how foods and drinks can be advertised. Many companies go even further, developing their own responsible marketing guidelines and making voluntary commitments. We don’t believe that a 9pm watershed would have any effect on obesity.”

“We mustn’t allow food companies to continue to exploit a failing regulatory system that allows them to bombard TV screens with junk food adverts at the times when the highest numbers of children are watching TV.” – Mike Hobday, Policy Director, British Heart Foundation

Ian Twinn, a spokesman for the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, went so far as to push the product as he defended the industry, claiming: “A kneejerk ban on so-called ‘unhealthy’ food before 9pm will not address the real issue of childhood obesity. Ad bans on foods high in fat, sugar and salt won’t solve the obesity problem. The key is in striking a balance between maintaining a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle, and the occasional treat.”

And in a sense, Twinn and Rycroft are right: regulating the advertising of fast food more carefully won’t single-handedly solve the rising rates of obesity among young people. It would only tackle television advertising, with no impact on other online and offline forms of fast food marketing. But, with proof that cutting down on adverts would cut down kids’ consumption of fast food, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Fast food advertising

Currently, unhealthy food can’t be advertised during TV shows aimed at children. But those shows don’t represent the peak viewing hours for kids, and advertisers know this.

Big questions answered, and a big opportunity for change

And of course, these spokespeople have a huge agenda, and a vested interest in making sure junk food advertising isn’t regulated any more than it is currently. This is a typical response from a food industry that is not held to any ethical standards. The only attempt to curb sugar and salt content of our food was the “responsibility deal,” which politely asked manufacturers to produce less damaging products. Andrew Lansley, the health secretary at the time, described the responsibility deal as “a great step in the right direction and will help millions of us eat and drink fewer calories.” It is not surprising that, in May 2015, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that the responsibility deal had failed.[5]

The Advertising Standards Authority has in the past suggested that the questions surrounding food and drink advertising are unanswered: “But are food and drinks ads, in part, responsible for the increase in childhood obesity? Do ads contribute in any meaningful way to less healthy lifestyles? […] These are some of the debates that continue to face Government, health professionals, consumers [and] industry.”[6]

We now have proof that the answer to the first two questions is “yes.” Here lies a straightforward and profound opportunity to tackle obesity at a political level. It remains to be seen if the government will take it.

What do you think?