Banning junk food ads won't stem the flow of fat kids

Elliott Haworth
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Schoolchildren Still Lured To Traditional Unhealthy Diet Options
There will still be fat kids once junk food ads are scrapped (Source: Getty)

For anyone who grew up in the nineties, advertising and children’s television were one and the same – for every ten minutes of Power Rangers, there would be five minutes of ads for Sunny D and awful American cereal.

Invariably some garish, multicoloured cartoon character would jump out of the television, screaming demands like an Isis recruitment video for products with the contradictory capacity to make children both run around, high on e-numbers, and fat, from consuming buckets of sugar.

The ads of my youth were banned from television by Ofcom in 2008, in an effort to tackle rising childhood obesity levels. The increase in kids getting fat, it seemed, was due to bogeyman advertisers force-feeding them an unhealthy amount of content, like media foie gras.

And like de ja vu, eight years on, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has extended the ban to the digital realm. The sweeping changes announced by the regulator ban the advertising of “high fat, salt or sugar food or drink products in children’s media” – so print, cinema and digital, including social.

In recent years, supermarkets have stopped displaying sweets at checkouts; draft legislation for a super-tax on sugar was released last week – Jamie Oliver still exists – and yet children are still piling on the pounds.

It’s easy to point the finger at advertising and brands, rather than addressing the sedentary way of life of children who spend all day glued to a games console, with parents incapable of ensuring a stable diet and exercise.

Advertisers aren’t forcing parents to buy a Big Mac with a gallon of coke for their nagging children. I’m sure it’s annoying when a child screams for sugar, but the ability to say “no” is a reflection of ineffective parenting rather than advertising being a malicious force.

According to CAP, “available evidence shows that the effect of advertising on children’s food preferences is relatively small,” but that “even a very small positive impact from these new ad restrictions could play a meaningful role in reducing potential harms to children.”

Although the ban won’t do any harm, it won’t do any good either, rendering it pointless.

CAP is trying to show that it can self-regulate efficiently and responsibly, but crumbling to demands, albeit well-intentioned, is neither.

Brands and advertisers will find other ways of reaching kids. Industry will always outpace regulation; provocation breeds innovation.

But using ever-more cunning methods to do so does little to improve the image of advertising.

This is a short-term fix to stave off the Jamie Olivers of the world. In another eight years kids will still be fat, and advertising will still be blamed.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

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