Childhood obesity: Time for action Contents

3Marketing and advertising

Broadcast media—the evidence

31.Public Health England, in 2015, concluded that,

Available research evidence shows that all forms of marketing consistently influence food preference, choice and purchasing in children and adults.38

Subsequently, our predecessor Health Committee called for broader and deeper controls on advertising and marketing to children in its 2017 (follow up) report, specifically:39

32.The Government’s response to these recommendations, whilst appreciating the salience of the points raised, was light on action. The formal Government response stated,

The Government recognises that marketing in all forms affects food preference and choice. Although evidence regarding the extent of increased consumption by children as a result of advertising and the knock-on effect on obesity levels is mixed.40

33.We find that response wholly unsatisfactory. We heard evidence during this inquiry that the relationship between advertising and childhood obesity is well established.41

34.Calls for greater restrictions on marketing and advertising have continued to be voiced by health groups. The BMA argued in written evidence,

One of the BMA’s primary criticisms of the Childhood Obesity Plan was the failure to include any measures to strengthen controls on the marketing and promotion of unhealthy food and drinks to children. We know that junk food adverts are very influential on children’s eating habits, and children are heavily exposed to marketing of unhealthy products in broadcast and non-broadcast media.42

35.In evidence to this inquiry, the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation stated:

When the government published their child obesity plan in August 2016 … there was a glaring omission of policies to protect children from the marketing of foods and drinks high in sugar, salt and saturated fat… companies invest in advertising because it works. Junk food marketing is a totemic issue that must be given the due attention in the next government childhood obesity plan.43

36.In response to these arguments, Stephen Woodford of the Advertising Association argued:

We have in the UK some of the strictest rules in the world. As an example of that, in the UK we define children as under-16s. Those rules have been in place on broadcasting since 2010, and in July last year they were extended to cover all media.44

37.However, we heard convincing evidence that this was not the case. Dr Emma Boyland Senior Lecturer in Psychological Sciences at the University of Liverpool told us:

There is a strong argument that these regulations can be effective and a useful policy lever, but independent monitoring of the Ofcom regulations from 10 years ago showed that there was not a significant reduction in food advertising that children see.45

38.Professor Russell Viner agreed, adding:

[…] advertising is most powerful in those who need it least. It is most powerful in deprived communities. Some research quoted again in our “A ‘Watershed’ Moment” pointed out, from a survey done with teenagers, that those from deprived communities were 40% more likely to recall junk-food advertising than those from less-deprived communities.4647

Broadcast media—the solutions

39.Evidence to this inquiry on marketing was almost unanimous on the need for implementation of the recommendation of our predecessor Health Committee, and Public Health England, to restrict all advertising of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods and drinks to after the 9pm watershed. Our predecessors’ most recent report noted:

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health told us that “previous research by Ofcom showed that [a ban on the advertising of HFSS food and drink before the 9pm watershed] would reduce the amount of HFSS adverts seen by children by 82 per cent compared to just 37 per cent for the current regulations.”48

40.As the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health argued in written evidence to this inquiry:

Current rules to restrict exposure to HFSS adverts do not go far enough in protecting children when they watch TV the most, between 6pm and 9pm, as this viewing period does not typically feature children-specific programming. A study by the University of Liverpool found that the majority (59%) of food and drink adverts shown during family viewing time (6pm–9pm) would be banned from children’s TV; however current restrictions only apply when children are over-represented in the audience, compared to the total viewing population, by 20%. Therefore while 27% of children’s viewing takes place during children’s TV where HFSS restrictions apply, 49% of children’s viewing takes place in adult air time where HFSS restrictions do not apply, peaking between 7pm and 8pm. A 9pm watershed therefore is the most effective way to reduce children’s exposure to food and drink marketing.49

41.We fully endorse the calls for a 9pm watershed on high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) food and drink advertising, and expect to see this measure included in the next round of the Government’s childhood obesity plan. Failure to implement this restriction would leave a worrying gap and call into question the commitment to serious action to tackle one of the key drivers of demand for high fat, sugar and salt food and drink.

42.We heard clear evidence that restrictions on advertising and marketing should not be limited to a 9pm watershed. Sustain, in written evidence, argued:

As with tobacco and alcohol, the Government should investigate ending sponsorship by brands overwhelmingly associated with HFSS products of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments. Campaigns are currently calling on sports associations to disassociate themselves from junk food brands, but if sports associations will not act, the Government must step in.50

Sustain also argued that the next round of the Government’s plan should:

Extend regulations governing use of child-friendly cartoon characters (either brand generated characters or licensed TV and film characters) beyond advertising to include HFSS product packaging and in-store promotions.51

Both of these recommendations were supported by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, who argued that they should be backed up with “meaningful sanctions for non-compliance.”52

43.The next round of the Government’s childhood obesity plan should include a ban on brand generated characters or licensed TV and film characters from being used to promote high fat, sugar and salt products. The plan should also include a commitment to end sponsorship by brands overwhelmingly associated with high fat, sugar and salt products of sports clubs, venues, youth leagues and tournaments.

Non-broadcast platforms

44.In 2016, Ofcom’s report on Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes revealed that children’s internet use has reached record highs, with young people aged 5–15 spending around 15 hours each week online—overtaking time spent watching a TV set for the first time. Even pre-schoolers, aged 3–4, are spending on average eight hours and 18 minutes a week online, up an hour and a half from the previous year.53

45.In the Committees on Advertising Practice’s 2016 amendment to the advertising code, regulations around non-broadcast ads were aligned with the stricter broadcast rules regarding HFSS advertising. However, submissions to this inquiry suggested that regulations around non-broadcast media remained ineffectual. Dan Parker of Living Loud, a health campaigner who previously worked in the marketing industry for companies including Coca-Cola, suggested in written evidence that,

The extension of this advertising ban to digital effectively excludes Facebook and Google, which alone account for 50% of online advertising. It also effectively excludes social media and video channels such as YouTube … These bans cover but one small aspect of marketing junk food to children.54

In oral evidence, Parker made the argument that

This code is a masterpiece in that it has banned something that never really existed. The interesting question is: what advertising that did exist has stopped existing because of these codes? There are no compliance breaches because it does not exist. More specifically, it goes out of its way to exclude the most effective tools in the junk-food marketer’s box—packaging, promotion, sponsorship, retail media, all specifically excluded because those are the things that they use to market to kids, even more so than TV advertising. It is a shocking sham—the whole piece of regulation.55

46.We heard consistent evidence that current regulations around non-broadcast media marketing to children are ineffectual, and fail adequately to appreciate the dynamics of children’s non-broadcast media consumption. We urge the Government in its next childhood obesity plan to tighten regulations around non-broadcast media to bring them in line with broadcast media restrictions, and to ensure that sites such as Facebook and YouTube amongst others are taking responsibility for helping to reduce exposure of children to inappropriate advertising and marketing, including advergames. The regulator should play a pro-active role in investigating breaches and taking enforcement action.

47.Furthermore, just as for broadcast media, the next round of the Government’s childhood obesity plan must include a ban on brand generated cartoon characters or licensed TV and film characters from being used to promote high fat, sugar and salt products in non-broadcast media.

39 Health Committee, Childhood obesity: follow-up, Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, HC928 p.26

40 Government Response to the House of Commons Health Select Committee report on Childhood obesity: Follow-up, Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, Cm9531 p.6

41 Q108, Dr Emma Boyland, Professor Russell Viner

44 Q93

45 Q115, Dr Boyland

46 Q115, Professor Viner

47 The Potential Cost-Effectiveness and Equity Impacts of Restricting Television Advertising of Unhealthy Food and Beverages to Australian Children, Brown et al, May 2018

48 Government Response to the House of Commons Health Select Committee report on Childhood obesity: Follow-up, Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, Cm9531 p.28

51 Ibid p.4

53 Children and parents: media use and attitudes report 2017, Ofcom, 2016

55 Q125, Dan Parker

Published: 30 May 2018