Janet Street-Porter: Stop force-feeding junk food to children

How many more kids must ruin their health before these media mandarins feel any sense of responsibility?
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The Independent Online

Gary Lineker may be a dad, but he must hate children. He currently features in a billboard advertisement for Walkers crisps. The caption reads: "There's as much salt in these (bag of Walkers crisps) as this (slice of horrible, white processed bread)". Parents concerned about their children's health wouldn't really want them to eat much of either so the ad is a ridiculous concept. Ofcom's proposals for dealing with TV ads for junk food, unveiled this week, not only mark a complete inability to face up to the problem of child obesity, but will have no effect whatsoever on all the other ways the powerful food industry will continue to market trash to the young. Gary will just be replaced by more insidious ways of getting crap down the throats of the under-tens.

In 2004, the Government published its White Paper on Health, and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, asked Ofcom, the broadcasting industry's regulatory body, to come up with "targeted plans" to deal with junk food advertising aimed at children.

Since then two things have happened. Obesity among the most vulnerable, the very young, has reach dangerous proportions (17 per cent) and now one third of all children are classified as overweight. This is down to two factors: lack of exercise and poor diet. The second has been the hard-core lobbying of Ofcom by the food industry. Facing up to the food giants are campaigning groups from the Consumers Association to the British Heart Foundation, many of whom have pressed for a total ban on junk food advertising on television.

Instead of doing what Tessa Jowell requested, Ofcom has dithered and come up with proposals which will now go through a six-month consultation process involving the broadcasting, food and advertising industries.

The new rules won't be in place until early 2007, three years after the original impetus, and children's channels will not have to put them into effect for three years. Scandalous. How many more children will have to ruin their health before any of these media mandarins feel a sense of responsibility?

Ofcom itself is a male-dominated, legally overweight kind of operation full of experts of wave-bands and technology, but not necessarily the kind of people who know or care about children who are out of breath and likely to have heart attacks before they are 50.

Ofcom's board consists of seven men and three women. Its executive consists of ten men and one woman. Its policy executive consists of 15 people, two of whom are women. Its operations board has ten people, three of whom are female. Doesn't exactly sound like an organisation with its agenda set in the 21st century does it, now that women occupy key positions in all the major broadcasting channels?

But this body, set up by the Government to regulate the modern media industry has demonstrated it simply does not have any understanding of the strength of public opinion on an issue as emotive as young people's health. It has kow-towed to the broadcasters, who claim that a junk food advertising ban will deplete their advertising revenues catastrophically.

Ofcom has three different proposals on the table, none of which represents an outright ban. One is for a ban on junk food and drink ads and sponsorship during shows made specifically for children (the under-fives) and shows of "particular appeal" to children. A second option is to ban advertising of all food and drink (not just junk food) during these shows. Another is to limit the number of food and drink ads when children are likely to be watching (between 3 and 8pm on weekdays and 6am to 8pm on weekends). Children's channels would be limited to just 30 seconds of such ads in an hour - impossible to decide which lucky brands get chosen.

A further option is a combination of all of the above. Talk about a fudge. At the same time a stricter code banning celebrities and famous cartoon characters appearing in advertisements for food aimed at children under 10 has been announced. So Gary Lineker may soon be looking for other ways to bolster his pension fund.

Ofcom should be castigated for its inept response on several fronts. First, while it has done bugger all for two years, food manufacturers are already devising ways to circumvent any ban or rationing of junk food advertising. Ofcom's proposals would not apply to cinema, print, billboard, the internet or mobile phones - a serious omission in its terms of reference.

The consumer group Which? identifies a growing trend -websites created by junk food manufacturers aimed at young children. They include free downloads, games and chances to win prizes. These websites also contain ads for junk food, and there is nothing that Ofcom can do about them. Next, junk food is being placed in computer games and many popular films aimed at children. McDonald's has a presence in The Sims computer game and the film The Incredibles carried out a major promotion involving Disney and Nestle.

The film Scooby Doo 2 featured food from Burger King. This is a subtle and insidious form of advertising which will only grow. Microsoft's MSN Messenger programme, used by more than 10 million people in the UK, has teamed up with McDonald's in a deal which means the website now contains ads for the burger chain, accessed via a "Theme Pack". MSN claims that 800,000 of their users are under 18, a key market for junk food manufacturers. The ban on the use of famous cartoon characters in television food ads has already been circumvented by the clever development of new characters by the manufacturers such as Tony the Tiger, who flogs Frosties breakfast cereals. This ploy is likely to become more prevalent

Ofcom do not think an outright ban on junk food advertising aimed at children aged nine and under is required because children areable to "tell the difference" between TV programmes and promotions. Piffle! I can tell you that I've had hundreds of letters over the years from people in their forties and fifties who cannot tell the difference between ads and the stuff in between.

Most children watch television programmes aimed at adults, such as Coronation Street, and so focusing a ban or a reduced number of slots during children's programming does not go far enough.

Finally, the BBC is said to be launching a website next year which will carry advertising. It is bound to feature the Corporation's highly successful cooking and children's programming- which, no doubt, will attract food advertising from exactly the kind of people that Ofcom has failed to regulate. Ms Jowell should make it plain to the BBC that their commercial plans should not take one penny from the manufacturers of rubbish such as Walkers crisps and Frosties.