Ofcom's brief on advertising to kids will come as a relief to many, say Siân Harrington and Rachel Barnes

It could have been worse. After months of prevarication, Ofcom has launched its consultation on food and drink advertising to kids. And none of the proposals on the table go as far as advocating a total ban.

The consultation, which comes in response to the government's Health White Paper, sets out four options for changing the content, volume and scheduling of food advertising on TV aimed at children (see box). They don't let the food and drink industry off the hook, but Ofcom seems to have finally heeded its own research, published in July 2004, showing that TV ads have only a "modest direct effect" on childhood diet.

Jeremy Preston, director of the Advertising Association's Food Advertising Unit, says that the tenor of the document will come as a relief to those fearing a total ban: "We've still got to read the detail, but in the context of the age group that should be targeted - ie. under-10s - and proportionality, it seems as though Ofcom has heeded the need for both."

The fourth option in particular offers the industry an opportunity to dictate its own destiny, he says. However, he concedes, if the third proposal were adopted, it would hit the industry hard. "The 30 seconds per hour is hugely restrictive."

The onus is now on the industry to convince the government that it can be trusted to advertise responsibly.

At the heart of the proposals and the Health White Paper as a whole is the flawed nutrient profiling model. At The Grocer's Public Health White Paper seminar last November, this attracted the most vociferous criticism of government's approach to tackling obesity. Central to this criticism was the use of the 100g amount to calculate recommended daily amounts. But how many kids eat 100g of cereal a day? A typical bowl is likely to contain 35g to 40g.

Preston remains sceptical: "How on earth can you have confidence in that? In the case of nutrient profiles being used to regulate broadcasting, products that have been consumed happily for years have now become demonised because the model is based on 100g as opposed to the amount actually consumed."

Another key concern is the 2007 deadline for assessing whether sufficient change has been made or whether legislation is necessary. At The Grocer's seminar, Public Health minister Caroline Flint stressed she would not budge on the deadline.

Yet government is failing to meet its own deadlines. Ofcom has launched its consultation, which closes on June 6, two years after it was first asked to devise plans to curb advertising. The Food and Drink Advertising and Promotion Forum has not met since November. And the contract for developing criteria to measure whether the nature of promotion has changed is still out to tender.

Social marketing, the new buzz phrase for the government's information campaign, could provide some answers. The Food Advertising Unit and advertising agencies developed a behavioural change campaign based on "calories in" and "calories out". The Department of Health has picked up the mantle and expects to launch its own campaign by the year-end. It'll be about 15 months late, but better late than never.

Meanwhile, Rafi Azim-Khan, partner at Wragge & Co, urges the industry to grab hold of the lifeline it has been thrown. "This is a critical opportunity for manufacturers to have a direct input in the advertising controls they are going to have to comply with."


Proposals on the table - four options for advertising to kids

- Time restrictions on food and drink brands that are high in fat, sugar and salt - so-called HFSS products. No ads for these products could be shown during children's programming or other TV shows that appeal to children up to nine years old. It would also mean no sponsorship by these brands of any such programmes.

- Restrictions on all food or drink advertising to under 10s, rather than just HFSS products, with the exception of government-endorsed healthy eating campaigns.

- Ads limited to 30 seconds per hour at peak child-viewing time and 60 seconds during family viewing. This would also ban all food and drink advertising during pre-school children's programming. 

- Food and drink industry comes up with a better idea that would command support across stakeholder industries and alter kids' preference for, and consumption of, HFSS products.