TV food and drink advertising is in limbo. With just weeks to go until Ofcom delivers the results of its investigation into advertising to children, many manufacturers are holding fire on ad campaigns for fear they will fall foul of the proposed restrictions. Others have already thrown their hands up in defeat, Coca-Cola and Kraft declaring they will not advertise overtly to under-12s and Haribo and Chewits owner Leaf UK vowing never to advertise again during children's TV.

But one brand's loss could be another's gain. Smaller brands with healthy credentials are already making the most of the slots freed up by the big guys - with a little help from the satellite and cable children's channel Nickelodeon, one of the channels that stands to lose most from the proposed restrictions.

Viacom Brand Solutions (VBS), the multi-channel sales house for MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and Paramount, has created ads for Ella's Kitchen and Babylicious, among others - at relatively little cost. An eight-week ad campaign for Ella's Kitchen Smoothie Fruits cost just £6,000 to put together, including the cost of a new website. A three-month campaign for Babylicious, which makes frozen baby and toddler food, was only marginally more expensive at £9,000.

Many companies do not realise that they can have a strong advertising campaign created for them at very little cost, says Dan Salem, head of partnerships at VBS.

"There's a myth that you need an agency and it's all very laborious. The reality is that it can be very simple. We're trying to educate some of these smaller brands that we can help not only to get them on TV but also to punch above their weight, get distribution and help in their negotiations with retailers."

Advertising revenues were already in decline before the proposed restrictions, making the medium cheaper for smaller players that might not have considered it in the past.

Sally Preston, founder of Babylicious, says: "Small, emerging companies often look in envy at TV advertising by big brands and wish they could advertise in this way, but their minute budgets did not allow them to. However, with the fragmentation of TV channels it is now possible to advertise to your target audience at a more palatable price. Our ad has been seen by lots of mums who talked about it and told their friends. Small companies rely heavily on word of mouth; the ad helped us see the 'talkability' of our food."

Small entrepreneurial brands are ideally positioned to exploit advertising restrictions, believes Salem. Ironically, their ads are already almost the right length, at 30-40 seconds, to comply with the more extreme proposals for satellite and cable TV advertising (see boxout).

"It's about being a little bit more creative," he says. "Every­one wants something that's relevant to them. It's about tailoring creative advertising for individual audiences."

Of course, even the small healthy brands would have to rethink their strategies if Ofcom recommends an all-out ban, although there could be concessions for satellite and cable. If it opts for a less draconian measure, allowing 'healthy' foods to be advertised, it raises the question of what will be deemed healthy.

Let's not forget that the Food Standards Agency's nutrient profiling model was so unpopular that the Food and Drink Federation and the Food Advertising Unit have said they would rather see a total ban of branded food and drink ads during kids' programming on terrestrial TV and a limit on food and drink ads on satellite and cable channels.

There's also the question of whether the government will allow the industry to police itself or go so far as to change the law. So what is the likely outcome? Consumers have indicated that they do not want a pre-watershed ban because it would penalise healthy brands, according to Ofcom's own consumer research. Salem remains optimistic that Ofcom will not resort to an all-out ban: "If you ban ads for healthy foods, how are you helping?"

Others are less confident, however. Martin Thomas, head of strategy at Media Planning Group, believes Ofcom will go for a full ban or heavy restrictions. "My instinct is that it will be towards the extreme end," he says. "It's relatively easy for the government to go with the flow. There's a prevailing mood."

In the short term, small brands are probably better placed to capitalise on any restrictions. But even if healthy brands are allowed to advertise, some will opt out rather than risk falling foul of the new regulations, believes Thomas.

Brands, large and small, will therefore have to look to marketing methods other than TV advertising, he says, even though these too will come under scrutiny. "They'll have to rely on other types of communication like direct marketing and experiential marketing. There's going to have to be a fairly radical rethink. The big guys will have to be really clever and take lessons from some of the smaller brands. Another interesting area is online. Blogs are just one area where brands are spending time and money trying to communicate their virtues."

That said, if there is an all-out ban, the challenges faced by brands would be nothing compared with those faced by TV stations, he warns. "This is happening to a TV market that's already quite depressed."

In the meantime, small brands with healthy credentials should make the most of the current uncertain advertising landscape, as the honeymoon period could be short- lived. "There's a window of opportunity," says Thomas. "They can steal a march on the big brands, but their advantage won't last long. Big brands have money and talent and are blatant plagiarists."HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A GREAT TV AD

A campaign for Ella's Kitchen Smoothie Fruits ran across the four Nickelodeon channels from February. It consisted of one 30-second commercial and two 10-second cutdowns and, says Paul Lindley, the company's founder, helped secure a listing in 338 Sainsbury's stores. What made it particularly innovative was that VBS took a percentage of sales. He says: "By refusing to believe it was too expensive, we worked out a new way of sharing risks and rewards."

Meanwhile, Babylicious aired its first TV commercial on Nickelodeon in July. Many consumers weren't looking for babyfood down the frozen aisle and the 40-second ad campaign on Nick Jr helped raise awareness of product location in-store.

If you want to put together a great TV ad, VBS advises:

1 Define your objectives

2 Define your target customer

3 Understand your customers' behaviour

4 Partner with a channel that can reach your target audience

5 Ensure your communication is relevant, informative, entertaining

6 Integrate your communication into the fabric of the channel.better balance

Ofcom's three proposals revolve around time restrictions on ads to children. A coalition involving the Food and Drink Federation, the Food Advertising Unit, Advertising Association, Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and ISBA, however, has submitted 'package four',

the Better Balance package.

This advocates:

a ban on licensed characters and celebrities in advertisements that are targeted at children

a ban on all branded food and drink advertisements during children's programming on terrestrial television channels

a limit to food and drink ads on satellite and cable channels to 30 seconds an hour instead of the one in five ads that currently appear in the 12 minutes of advertising allowed each hour