News Analysis: Public Health Report - In the hands of advertisers

The government has left the door open for food companies to make their own regulatory proposals.

The government White Paper on health published last week was not as prescriptive in the area of promoting food to children as some had feared. Certainly, groups campaigning for tighter legislative controls were disappointed by the document's content, complaining it did not go far enough in addressing concerns about childhood obesity.

Nevertheless, there is much for food and drink marketers to consider.

The government asserts that there is a strong case for further restricting the advertising to children of food and drink products that are high in fat, salt and sugar, and action needs to be taken not just in relation to TV ads, but all elements of advertising including sponsorship, packaging and point of sale, as well as in areas such as labelling.

The government's aim is for change to be achieved through self-regulation.

Its proposals include establishing a food and drink advertising and promotion forum to strengthen voluntary codes. Pressure is also building on manufacturers to fund health education campaigns. But the government's apparent emphasis on self-regulation and a collaborative approach with manufacturers is backed by a clear determination to effect change in the 'nature and balance' of food promotion. If this is not forthcoming by 2007, it will go to legislation.

So how has the marketing industry reacted? One senior food and drink executive says the White Paper 'holds pretty much what we expected, with the use of strong language on regulation to make a point most (of us were) already aware of'.

Changing priorities

When it comes to the possibility of a ban on advertising to children, the same executive claims that, contrary to popular belief, leading food and drink firms 'wouldn't mind a ban on ads to kids', as it would help restrict new entrants to the market. He also maintains that the decline in corner shops means children have less time alone in which to buy than before: 'Kids have never been less important when it comes to the purchasing and consumption of food and drink. As the gatekeepers, the parents are a more important target audience now.'

As the White Paper has indicated priority areas, rather than imposing solutions, there is still a lack of clarity about what lies around the corner. 'So much depends on the outcome of the review the White Paper has signalled it wants Ofcom to lead,' says Kraft Foods corporate affairs manager Jonathan Horrell. 'We will work with whatever codes of practice are put in place. We feel effective self-regulation is the right way forward.'

Perhaps not surprisingly, advertisers who were prepared to comment for this analysis were at pains to stress how much they are already doing to address these concerns. Horrell points to the reformulation of Kraft Dairylea Lunchables to include pure orange juice and low-fat yoghurt instead of a chocolate sweet. However, he accepts that balanced lifestyle messages will play an important part in communications, and is in favour of clearer on-pack labelling. 'The important thing is to make sure the information helps people.'

Coca-Cola, however, remains unconvinced that the government's proposed introduction of a 'simplistic traffic light scheme' for labelling will be effective in providing clear nutritional guidance. It believes there are no quick fixes for dietary and lifestyle education and that the issue needs to be tackled as part of a long-term strategy. It finds more merit, though, in the government's proposal that food and drinks companies should contribute to the development of health initiatives.

'We strongly endorse the principle of a public health campaign as part of providing the right information to help consumers make informed choices,' says Coca-Cola GB head of citizenship Emma Wigzell. 'It is essential for consumers to be informed and motivated to make changes in their lifestyles.'

Considered approach

McDonald's marketing communications manager Amanda Pierce is keen to emphasise that it was one of the first quick-service restaurants to offer this sort of information to its customers 20 years ago, and is supportive of the need for clear and consistent nutritional information to be available.

'We are continuing to look at new and different ways to present this information. However, there is a danger of over-simplifying the information; the content as well as presentation needs to be closely examined.'

Pierce also points to the chain's recently launched educational ads that explain to children the importance of 'five-a-day', active lifestyles and drinking the right things, as evidence that the company is ahead of the curve.

On the face of it, food and drinks marketers appear relaxed about the White Paper. But there is no room for complacency. As the obesity debate rages on, change is inevitable. Food companies need to adapt and focus on educating their consumers about diet and lifestyle. If the industry does not fully embrace this over the next two years, there is a real possibility it will be forced to adhere to external regulation.

DATA FILE - WIDER REACTION

Debra Shipley, MP

'It seems absurd to give the job of implementing this policy to Ofcom, given that it opposes the necessary controls. And the food and advertising industries remain opposed to a ban. It is good news that the government will enforce a ban if a voluntary approach fails, but the 2007 deadline is far too distant.'

Malcolm Earnshaw, Director general, Incorporated Society of British Advertisers

'We insist any proposals to restrict consumer information should be evidence-based and with a high probability of addressing public policy issues positively. In this instance, we believe such interventions would be both disproportionate and ineffective.'

Dr Madsen Pirie, President, Adam Smith Institute

'I am in favour of choice. If, for example, you can't advertise Coco Pops to the target market it puts you in a difficult position doing marketing. Perhaps there should be (on-screen) warnings when foods fail to meet approved requirements. But banning advertising is the wrong way to go.'

Charlie Powell, Campaign co-ordinator for the Children's Food Bill, Sustain

'The government has missed a golden opportunity to protect children's health. It is a lame response. Whatever the food industry says publicly, privately it'll be delighted. This will allow the food companies to continue making huge profits by exploiting children.'

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