It’s been a long time coming, but after three years and a forest of consultation papers and reports, the uber communications regulator has finally given us the broadcasting answer to the UK’s youth obesity problem. So why is nobody happy?
When: November 2006
Not unlike the proverbial tortoise, Ofcom is puffing and panting its way towards its finish line, as it, this month, announced its preferred approach to the TV advertising of food and drink products high in fat, salt and sugar ("HFSS") to children: a is a total ban on HFSS food and drink advertisements in all programmes either specifically made for children or of "particular appeal to children under the age of 16", broadcast at any time of day or night on any channel.
This would include a total ban in all pre-school children's programming, all children's programming and dedicated children's channels. The ban would remove HFSS advertising in or around all children's, youth oriented and adult programmes, which attract 20% more under 16s than the national average ("the 20% rule").
Ofcom had been considering implementing such a ban in the context of programming aimed at under nines, so, by extending this to under 16s, it has gone further than expected.
Also proposed are rules preventing the use of celebrities and licensed characters, promotional offers and nutritional and health claims in advertisements for HFSS products targeted at primary school children.
This all started back in December 2003, when the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport asked Ofcom to "consider proposals to strengthen the rules on food and drink advertising to children".
Following its research, in July 2004, Ofcom reached the following conclusions:
· television advertising effects on childhood food preferences are modest when compared to other factors such as parental influence, school policy and exercise;
· however, given modest direct effects and a larger but unquantifiable indirect effect, new restrictions are warranted and necessary.
A health white paper followed in November 2004, which included curbs of the promotion of unhealthy foods to children as part of its measures.
The Food Standards Agency developed a nutrient profiling model, a tool for categorising foods on the basis of their nutrient content, which it delivered to Ofcom in December 2005. The model was designed to assist Ofcom in identifying and targeting HFSS food and drink products.
Following this, Ofcom's proposals for consultation were published in March 2006, the results of which were announced this month and appear to have led to a state of universal discontent, as will be seen below.
The extension of the ban to programming watched by under-16s will be subject to a short consultation, which will close before Christmas 2006. Ofcom expects to publish its final determination by the end of January 2007. Then these new rules will be phased in over the next two years, as follows:
· content rules must be reflected in all new advertising campaigns by the end of January 2007;
· changes to all scheduling must take effect before Easter 2007;
· all advertising must conform to the new content rules by the end of June 2007; and
· the restrictions for dedicated children's channels will be phased in over a 24 month period ending in 2008.
Given its slow and steady approach, it is surprising that the regulator's announcement has been regarded as an underwhelming anticlimax by one camp and as misguided and disproportionate by the opposing camp.
The "not far enough" camp
In the right corner, you have the health campaigners such as the British Heart Foundation, National Heart Foundation, Sir Al Aynsley-Green (the Children's Commissioner), British Medical Association ("BMA") and National Consumer Council, to name a few. These parties consider Ofcom to have missed a valuable opportunity to tackle childhood obesity. As, Dr Vivenne Nathanson, Head of Science and Ethics at the BMA explained:
"We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic and must use all the weapons in our armoury to prevent the next generation of British children being the most obese and unhealthy in history"
They are seeking nothing short of a total pre-watershed ban on HFSS advertising. In her official letter to Ofcom, Dierdre Hutton, Chair of the Food Standards Agency ("FSA"), confirmed that the FSA supports,
"a pre-9pm watershed ban on advertisements for food high in fat, salt or sugar, as we consider this offers a practical means of extending protection to older age groups, which is consistent with other broadcasting controls".
A major concern is that these measures will leave programmes that attract a significant number of under 16s, such as soap operas and reality TV shows, unaffected. Sir Aynsley-Green, as gone so far as to say that,
"In practice, the status quo will barely shift..".
The "too far" camp
In the left corner, you have trade bodies, food manufactures and broadcasters, who consider Ofcom's proposals to be, as Mary Leech, the director of the Food and Drink Federation, put it "over the top".
She went on to say:
"We are shocked that after a lengthy consultation Ofcom has moved the goalposts. […] This issue has always been about advertising to young children."
Ofcom has estimated that the proposals will cost broadcasters up to £39 million a year in lost advertising revenue. With this in mind, it is hard to see how the quality of children's programming will be unaffected.
Criticisms have also been levelled at the nutrition profiling model, which the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers has called "flawed", for example, the advertising of products such as cheese and Marmite will be subject to Ofcom's ban.
Why this matters:
Ofcom is undoubtedly in a very difficult position. In an effort to deal with the problem of child obesity, it has tried to take a proportionate approach but has apparently failed to make anyone happy.
The regulator has taken brave, decisive and controversial steps, but when there is doubt over the accuracy of both:
a) the nutrient profiling model, the formula that will determine HFSS foods (will the right foods and drinks be targeted and who will do the profiling?); AND
b) the 20% rule, the formula that will determine the programming that the ban will affect (will the right programming slots be targeted?);
it is hard not to wonder if all this feather rustling, to the detriment of the quality of children's programming, is in vain.
Print media also affected?
What about other media? Will comic books and magazines aimed at tweens and teens escape unscathed? It would appear not, as there are already reports of the Advertising Standards Authority ("ASA") considering measures restricting unhealthy food ads in children's magazines for early presentation to Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell.
There have been reports that similar controls are being considered by the Department of Health in relation to the HFSS ads on billboards, radio and the Internet.
Where will HFSS advertisers go in their attempt to influence the purchasing decisions of under 16s? Popular opinion of industry bods seems to point to the Internet; obvious choice. Lower quality children's programmes can only help to accelerate the process. Although the Department of Health is reported to be considering implementing controls on the Internet, this is likely to be the biggest challenge. Currently the online remit of the ASA "CAP" self-regulatory code is limited to banner ads, online promotions and email marketing, while brand owners' own website are outside the CAP Code and largely unregulated.
Ofcom does not propose to review the effectiveness of the new rules until autumn 2008. In the interim period, we will see whether the rules have had the desired impact on the television advertising of HFSS and, the more important 'big picture' question, whether or not the problem has just been shifted into another arena.