Food advertising: evidence-based rules for children’s multimedia lives

The CAP have posted a news item on their website which goes into more detail about the TV advertising rules brought in last year. I include the post below, but have a look at their site for more info.

Advertising is at the heart of a fast-changing media landscape; keeping up requires dedicated effort. But there’s one thing that doesn’t change: we want to protect people, especially children, and controlling the advertising of foods and soft drinks high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS foods) is central to that work.

The UK Government will shortly review the progress of its anti-obesity plan and advertising is in the spotlight. The UK already has some of the strongest restrictions in the world, but some politicians, commentators and campaigners want more.  Notably, the Scottish Government has called for a 9pm ‘watershed’ on TV advertising of HFSS products.

New initiatives

Today, the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP and BCAP) have announced that they’re taking a closer look at the regulation of TV advertising and the progress of the new rules brought in last year for non-broadcast media. It’s important that we review progress and assess whether the bars have been set in the right place, not least because of the shifting sands of children’s media lives.

The backdrop to this is obesity, a huge public health challenge, to which children’s diets are central. Governments and regulators need effective policies to tackle the adverse influences that can be so detrimental in shaping children’s relationships with food as they move into adulthood.  The evidence shows that parental and peer influence, schools policy and sedentary lifestyles are the main factors driving obesity. But, it also indicates that HFSS food ads have an effect on children’s immediate food preferences. That effect might only be modest, but it’s there. So it’s right – given the obesity crisis we face – that the UK Advertising Codes should restrict HFSS food ads to children.

Refocusing on TV

For TV, we’ve had rules in place to curb the targeting of TV HFSS food ads to children, including a complete ban on ads in children’s TV, since 2007. The rules also ban HFSS food ads around TV programmes that attract a disproportionately high child audience.

A review of ads between 2005 and 2009 showed that those rules resulted in a 37% reduction in children’s TV HFSS food ad exposure. Now, new data suggests that that trend is very likely to have continued. Children’s exposure to all TV food ads is around 40% lower now than it was in 2010. The soft drink category alone has seen a reduction of over half during that period. HFSS food ads make up only a part of all the TV ads – albeit a substantial part – and we’re now looking at whether the TV HFSS food ads are following a similar trend to soft drinks. Identifying those ads from within the ‘All TV Food Ads’ category is not straightforward, which is why we’re currently working to ensure we get accurate figures. In the summer, we’ll publish that data.

Looking at the emerging evidence, alongside data on impact, will give us the first comprehensive picture of TV HFSS advertising and its impact on children since Ofcom’s review in 2010.

Adapting to new media landscapes

Changes in children’s media habits and the impact of our rules on TV HFSS advertising, mean the online space is now of much greater importance. Recognizing that children now spend more time online than they do watching TV, the rules were tightened in July 2017 to limit children’s exposure across non-broadcast media, including, vitally, online spaces like social media. The new rules ban HFSS food ads on children’s websites or targeted at them on social media. They also restrict such ads in other media where children make up more than 25% of the audience.

It’s early days, but the new restrictions appear to have landed well. We’re not seeing evidence of widespread or serious problems. And a handful of ongoing ASA investigations will tackle any concerns so far drawn to our attention, if necessary making it even clearer to food and drink companies where the line is drawn.

Nevertheless, it’s important for CAP to reflect more broadly on the rules, including where we think there might be scope for change. The 12 month review will be proactive in looking for problems, with a particular focus on social media and online environments. We also want to hear from key stakeholders about new evidence and their perspectives on the impact of the rules.  

Continuing to play our part

Restrictions on advertising are never going to be the silver bullet to the obesity crisis but they can and must do their bit. The evidence, including emerging data on the decline in children’s exposure to TV food ads, shows the positive impact the current restrictions are having. Our tightening up of the non-broadcast rules last year proves we’re very much prepared to act, if a further case for change emerges.

Now is the appropriate point to update the evidence picture, review the impact ads are having and take stock of the protections provided across all media that form part of children’s lives.


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