At least one conclusion came out of the Public Health White Paper - that it seemed to pose more questions about the future of food and drink promotion than it answered.
Nowhere was this realisation more apparent than at the annual conference of the Advertising Association’s Food Advertising Unit - titled ‘Obesity: Is food advertising increasingly part of the solution?’ - held in London as the ink was drying on the government report.
Among the questions delegates wanted answered was what the Department of Health meant by the ambiguous paragraph in chapter 2.58 of the White Paper. It stated that, as well as monitoring food and drink ads to children over the next two years, the government would also check how ‘children’s food preferences’ changed over the same period.
But what did this mean? And why? Was there the implied threat that Gary Lineker would only be allowed to continue turning out for Walkers if kids stopped eating Walkers crisps? Surely this would defeat the whole point of advertising?
A woman supposedly in the know, Imogen Sharp from the DoH’s health improvement and prevention unit, was apparently not in the know. Confronted with a barrage of questions from the manufacturing and advertising communities, Sharp insisted the wording of the document was clear and added: “We think we can research children’s food preferences in the timescale that has been set out and will monitor them to see if that (a change in advertising) has worked. We have said clearly we will monitor the success of these measures.”
A politician’s answer from a civil servant if ever there was one.
This failed to pacify Jeremy Preston, director of the Food Advertising Unit, who slammed the White Paper as smacking of “short-term populism”.
“We want our consumers to live long and healthy lives for obvious reasons,” said Preston. “The government should heed the robust evidence and not be persuaded by facts that have no validity, and it should remove the menace behind some of the language.”
Andrew Brown, chairman of the Committee of Advertising Practice, said proposals for a traffic-light labelling scheme, or equivalent, could be fed into a new advertising code, while Simon Pitts, controller of regulatory affairs at ITV, said: “We do not believe a 9pm watershed (on advertising food and drink to children) would be effective and proportionate. We are also concerned that a measure would be whether children’s eating preferences have changed over the period under review. It is unrealistic to assume that affecting such change would be in the power of advertising alone.”