The £1.24bn industry is, for the time being at least, consoling itself that the ban applies only to advertising during children's airtime, and has turned its attention to the gatekeeper. Pester power is out. Parent power is in. But with Ofcom this week confirming it is targeting under-16s from 2008, the promotional scope of the cereal manufacturers is severely limited.
And it's not just telly. We already know that posters, cinema and press advertising are likely to become a no-no later in the year. Also under investigation are on-pack, online, in-store as well as sponsorship. And there's a very real possibility that the cereal manufacturers will find their promotion to parents limited too, with the Food Standards Agency impressing upon the EU the need to adopt its Nutrient Profiling Model, the absurdly anomalous scoring system that's been used to underpin Ofcom's ban, as the basis for determining if a product can or cannot make any health claims at all.
That this draconian attitude is directed towards one of the most important staples of a balanced, healthy diet (while fast-food outlets can continue to advertise their corporations) is all the more galling when set against the facts. Just one in five British kids now eats breakfast - that's the lowest rate in Europe - but they are the biggest spenders on confectionery.
As Paul Hartley argues in Comment (see p30): "I spend a lot of my time extolling the virtue of breakfast and brunch. I visit schools, offices and health clubs to promote the first meal of the day. I also encourage children to have something good for breakfast rather than stopping at the local shop for a sugar fix of chocolate and a fizzy drink. Should I say honey is bad for you, don't eat cereals or yoghurt and forget the Marmite? I don't think so. What scares me is the message we are giving our children in the all-important fight against obesity - that chicken nuggets, oven chips and ready meals, with little or no nutritional value, are OK. Parents were confused before - heaven help them now."
Just in case you missed our explanation of how the Nutrient Profiling Model works, it scores food and drink according to a giant 100g/100ml portion, taking the amounts of negative nutrients (salt, sugar and fat) and balancing that against a limited selection of positive ingredients (fruit, vegetables, protein, nuts). Vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients - including iron and calcium - are all ignored. And no distinction is made between natural sugars, like honey and dried fruit, and highly processed sugars.
To add injury to the insult of this giant portion (even an adult is likely to consume no more than 35g), the Model doesn't allow breakfast cereal manufacturers to take into consideration the 125ml of milk that invariably accompanies a cereal. So, while the FSA passed a chocolate milk as OK, thanks to the high levels of protein, a bowl of Coco Pops - with less sugar than the milky drink - is banned.
Nutrition expert Professor Verner Wheelock believes that demonising breakfast cereals is unfair and, far from helping to cut obesity, will only make the role of parents that bit harder: "Since breakfast cereals are invariably eaten with milk this should be taken into consideration when making a nutritional assessment. I have not the slightest doubt the FSA approach is fundamentally flawed. The fact they keep having to make adjustments is confirmation of this."
Kellogg's has been among the hardest-hit breakfast cereal manufacturers, with 30 of its products now banned from advertising to children, including Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Frosties, Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, Ricicles and Coco Pops. "About 90% of our kids brands can't advertise to children," says Kellogg's communications director Chris Wermann. "In effect, nutrient profiling is demonising an entire category. It's really very odd. Yet if our products were judged on a normal portion size with milk, all of them would pass."
Paula Moss, marketing director for Sugar Puffs, is similarly bewildered by the "bizarre" and "alarmist" approach: "Children need something to get them going in the morning and to sustain them until lunchtime and breakfast cereals such as Sugar Puffs do that." As we show right, a bowl of Sugar Puffs now contains less than two teaspoons of sugar. There is nothing to stop a child from adding two teaspoons of sugar to a bowl of Weetabix, yet this escapes the ban.
The breakfast cereal makers are remaining cheerfully optimistic about both the short and long-term future of their brands. Kellogg's will support its brands, Wermann promises, with the same overall ad budgets as before. He also believes consumers trust brands and, despite the stigma of failing to meet the Nutrient Profiling Model's healthy food criteria, believes Kellogg's brands will continue to appeal. "Parents will buy Kellogg's because they know there won't be any wastage."
Rory Sutherland, vice-chairman of advertising agency Ogilvy, agrees: "Brands are important because they guarantee consistent quality and no surprises. This is particularly important to children who are notoriously fussy eaters."
Yet, while manufacturers put on a brave face, Sutherland is not alone in being concerned about the long-term effect on sales of breakfast cereals. "If brands aren't as visible to children, and parents are encouraged to believe breakfast cereals are junk food, it will have an effect on sales. I think this ban is a very blunt instrument. As a parent I'm very happy to sacrifice absolute health in the knowledge that my children will eat something in the morning.
"But it's not at all clear to me what exactly is unhealthy about this food. It seems a weird attempt to impose middle-class values on the masses."
And the bitter irony is that the Ofcom ban on cereal advertising is unlikely to have the effect the food police desire. "It's of great benefit that cereal brands use marketing that connects with kids on their own terms to encourage them to actually eat a breakfast of some sort," says Phil Gandy, planning director for brand design and development agency at Landor Associates.
"Most kids will still eat what they like the taste and texture of: it's a physiological thing to do with their youthful, sweet-attuned palates. Very few will make the journey over to unsweetened, unsalted wholegrain virtue in the near future."How to escape the ban add yoghurt, honey later
Two of the three ingredients in this delicious-looking serving, used in a recent TV ad campaign, cannot be advertised to children. But because the ad is for Weetabix - rather than the honey or the Greek yoghurt - it sails through Ofcom's test.
The ad is part of a week-long campaign Weetabix has been running to show how Britain's top-selling cereal can be livened up each day. On day one, it suggests mixed berries. Day two is the yoghurt and honey. Day three swaps the honey for fruit compôte. On day four come dried apricots and raisins. Day five the ad suggests almonds and bananas. Day six it's strawberries and cream.
Only on day seven does the ad suggest it is served plain with just a splash of cold milk. Weetabix is playing to its strengths. Made almost entirely from wholegrain wheat, with no added salt or sugar, it is therefore one of the few cereals that escape the children's advertising ban.
Yet the campaign is a recognition that Weetabix is rarely consumed in isolation, and that consumers will want to sweeten the cereal, either with honey, syrup, sweetened yoghurt, dried fruit, fresh fruit or even - heaven forfend - sugar. It escapes the ban only because it has chosen to leave this to the consumer.
The obvious solution for cereal manufacturers is to strip them back to their basic, and in some cases unpalatable, ingredients, and let children sweeten them as they want. But stripping out the sugar, raisins or other flavourings robs most brands of their USPs. Frosties without the sugar? Bran flakes without the salt? They wouldn't taste too good.
As food manufacturers scratch their heads about how they might change their recipes to escape the ban without losing all their customers - a task made doubly hard by the fact that cereals are scored using at least three times a normal portion size, and without taking into account the additional nutritional value of the milk that accompanies every cereal - the irony is that children could add more sugar than other manufacturers. A 30g bowl of Sugar Puffs now contains less than two teaspoons of sugar. And we all know how much children can add themselves if given free rein of the sugar bowl.
Cheerios, Fitnesse, Ready Brek Swirls, Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, All-Bran, Fruit 'n Fibre, Special K, Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes, Frosties, Honey Loops, Shreddies, Quaker Granola, Jordans Superfoods Granola, Cinnamon Grahams, Jordans Country Crisp & Flakes Red Berry
Quaker Oats, Ready Brek,
Weetabix, Shredded Wheat