Advertising: Junking the junk-food ads won't solve anything

Advertising executive Andrew McGuinness on why the White Paper is wrong - and how his industry will meet the new challenge
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The Independent Online

Around a billion adults worldwide are classified as overweight. Of these, 300 million are clinically obese. The causes are complex, and it's not just a problem faced in the West. Data from China indicates that obesity rates have soared to 20 per cent in some cities.

Around a billion adults worldwide are classified as overweight. Of these, 300 million are clinically obese. The causes are complex, and it's not just a problem faced in the West. Data from China indicates that obesity rates have soared to 20 per cent in some cities.

Something has to be done - and what we got last week was a White Paper that proposed taking radical action against the advertising of junk food on television. The paper threatens to ban such ads on TV before the 9pm watershed. Both advertising agencies and client marketeers have expressed considerable disquiet over the moves.

Jeremy Preston of the Advertising Association described the potential ban as "short-term, populist and disproportionate". Having discussed the issues with a number of people within the industry, it is clear that Mr Preston's language is among the most moderate. So why has the sector become so hot under the collar, and what would the real impact of a ban be?

Adland is perplexed that a ban is even being contemplated: there is no evidence linking advertising to obesity. Advertisers and their agencies see the freedom to communicate the benefits of their products as a right they will fight hard to protect. As Marina Palomba of the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising says: "Bans are not only ineffective. They can be counter-productive by damaging consumer choice, information, and competition."

Very little consideration appears to have been given to the true consequences of a ban. Britain enjoys an extremely high standard of children's TV programming. As around 70 per cent of the funding for this programming comes from advertising, poorer programmes would be an inevitable consequence of the ban. Even Ofcom has conceded that "a ban would undermine the likely investment in children's programming on commercial television, reducing choice and innovation for younger audiences".

Any ban is unlikely to alter fundamentally the will of manufacturers of high-fat/high-salt foods to sell their products. Inventive marketeers will find new ways of communicating with their audience. It's been reported that Kraft, the manufacturer of Angel Delight, will attempt to head off any ban by introducing sponsored classroom cookery lessons. Indeed, recent data suggests that advertising by food and drink producers during children's television has already been reduced by 22 per cent in anticipation of a ban: producers are already finding new ways to communicate with their audience.

Nor will a ban alone curb the desire for peopleto want to consume what are often the tastiest foods. Will a ban dissuade us from buying 10,653 tonnes of chocolate every week? Unlikely. The overriding view is that the industry is in danger of becoming a victim of what Campaign calls "clumsy thinking". The risk is that a ban may do considerable damage without solving the issue.

There is another side to the White Paper, however. When you go into the detail, you find measures proposed that have the potential to excite the industry. The paper outlines the objective of using advertising and communication to create a culture of a healthier nation. What a brief! Complex, difficult but exciting and challenging - in fact a marketeer's or adman's dream!

Not only does this ambition to change the nature of the nation's relationship with food, exercise and health provide a wonderful brief. It also recognises that tackling obesity is a challenge facing the whole of society. It's an issue that has not emerged overnight; nor will it be solved overnight. It will not be solved by a disproportionate focus upon a single industry. Truly solving the problem requires a change in the nation's mindset, a quest that a large number of industries can, and must, contribute to.

Take the car industry. Until now it has been removed from the obesity debate. But is it any less radical to suggest that new cars be fitted with an alarm providing drivers with a health warning if the vehicle is used for journeys of less than, say, two miles, than it is to deny manufacturers the chance to advertise their products on TV?

The White Paper provides an intelligent, far-reaching assessment, but the spectre of a ban has led to a sense of frustration and disappointment in the advertising and marketing community. The issue is where the energies of the media and the Government should be directed: on the sensible and constructive suggestions the White Paper contains? Or on the more sensationalist measures such as an advertising ban? They may make great copy, but they won't solve the problem.

Andrew McGuinness is chief executive of the advertising agency TBWA, whose clients include John Smith's, Abbey, Sony PlayStation and the Labour party


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