In 2020, a report by the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge made abundantly clear the need for strong regulation around advertising and marketing of HFSS foods.
The research team modelled the impact of HFSS advertising reduction by correlating children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising with children’s height and weight. The findings were inspiring – and I make ads aimed at children for a living.
The data revealed that if all unhealthy television advertising between 5.30am and 9pm was banned, children in the UK would see, on average, 1.5 fewer HFSS advertisements per day. It would reduce the number of children with obesity by 4.6% and those who are overweight (including obesity) by 3.6% – equivalent to 40,000 fewer children with obesity and 120,000 fewer overweight children.
That’s 160,000 healthier children. The report went on to outline how the benefits would result in a healthcare cost saving of £7.4bn for today’s children across their lifetime. We’re talking about physical and mental wellbeing, and the avoidance of bone and muscle problems as well as respiratory diseases such as asthma.
So why have some in the food industry and the advertising industry, along with their innumerable advocate trade bodies, lobbied so hard against this fundamental pillar of the anti-obesity strategy? So hard that the government has kicked it down the road? The answer of course is cold, hard cash. Business is business after all. But what we’re talking about here are the lives of our children. This is serious.
During the leadership hustings, PM Truss repeatedly said people want the government to deliver on issues such as transport, public services, broadband and cutting NHS waiting lists, rather than “telling them what to eat”. Yes, Liz, they do. But this misses the point. A pretty good way to cut those NHS waiting lists would be to ensure 160,000 children do not become obese as a direct result of HFSS advertising and promotion.
I couldn’t give a finger of fudge whether grown-ups eat too much bad stuff – that is entirely up to them. I’m interested in ensuring we all support the healthy development of our children.
Things are about to get a lot worse. The delay to the HFSS ban on ads, online spend and impulse promotions is the tip of the spear that is about to skewer our children’s health. The rest of it is even scarier.
If and when these regulations kick in, brands and agencies will still be able to use platforms like Twitch, TikTok, YouTube and Roblox to create immersive and experiential communications that are infinitely more powerful in driving recall and request than a passive 30-second spot.
There’s no such thing as a ‘watershed’ in the wonderful world of Web3 and the Metaverse. It’s still the wild west. So instead of pontificating about legislation that is already 18 months out of date, maybe the government should be taking action rather than doing nothing.
The way through is actually reformulation. I was part of the team that developed and launched Kellogg’s Multi-Grain Shapes nearly 20 years ago. If it could be done then, it can be done now. McVitie’s, Kellogg’s and Premier Foods are all leading the reformulation charge and are having considerable success. Britvic, too, now has a product portfolio that is 90% compliant.
I know it’s difficult. But it has to be done.
Brands should take some of Queen Elizabeth II’s advice. When Jacinda Ardern asked Her Majesty for advice on how to look after children and run the country, the Queen replied: “Just get on with it.”