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Boris' junk food ads ban: why stop there?


by Oliver Hayes, Policy and Campaigns Lead

3 min read



On 27 July the Prime Minister used his recent brush with death as a catalyst to announce new measures intended to curb obesity.


No. 10’s comms suggested the greater responsibility lies with individuals to “get your weight down a bit”, which lets government and corporations off the hook and ignores the wider economic and social factors that are surely more significant when it comes to determining the nation’s health.


But it wasn’t all Johnsonian bluster; the Government announced a ban on advertising junk food (High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) products, to be precise) on telly and online before 9pm, though not for two years. Ministers will also consult on banning HFSS online ads at any time.


Justifying the ban, the government cited evidence from Cancer Research UK about the prevalence of HFSS ads on TV between 6-9pm (60% of the total, astonishingly). But it also dropped the bombshell news that, advertising, er, works:


“Evidence shows that exposure to HFSS advertising can affect what and when children eat, both in the short term and the longer term by shaping children’s preferences at a young age. This is supported by the World Health Organization (WHO).”


That’s right, a terribly unfortunate and totally unintended consequence of pummelling kids with junk food ads is that they respond by eating junk food.


Wanton insincerity aside, there are some interesting things going on here. One is the bind it places on the food and drinks industry, who saturated the airwaves with howls of derision and, in-so-doing, put themselves not only on the wrong side of the debate around child health, but also Covid. 


In their defence, it must have been very disorienting lining up *against* a politician who has made railing against the perceived “nannying and bossy” tendencies of the state something of an art-form, but there we are.


The pro-junk food lobby’s arguments mainly boiled down to “this will hurt the economy”, ie kids’ health is collateral when it comes to profits, and “it won’t make any difference”, which is odd, because that suggests advertising doesn’t work. Weren’t we just told it absolutely does?


Perhaps the more significant point is that the announcement tacitly acknowledges just how powerful and effective targeting kids with advertising really is, and that, should the stakes be high enough, the government is prepared to curb it.


Which begs the question: why stop at junk food? What about all the other mindless consumerism rammed down kids’ throats? Is the government happy for marketers to seed and exploit teen anxiety about personal appearance or social conformity in order to sell fast fashion? Is it, to borrow a Mandelsonian phrase, “intensely relaxed” about advertisers pursuing 8-year-olds round the net with reminders of the products they saw unboxed on Ryan’s World?


We know that children are more susceptible to the pressures of marketing, less likely to recognise paid-for content, and less likely to understand how and what kinds of data are used for these purposes than adults. And it’s also clear that existing data protection rules, in theory at least, outlaw ads tailored to a child’s online behaviour and other identifiers, because profiling – on which ‘behavioural’ ads depend – is not permitted for under 13s.


But it’s not at all clear that policy makers have comprehended – let alone confronted – the new reality of online advertising. The current crop of leaders may have grown up in an era of four TV channels and the odd Kevin Keegan-endorsed sausage advert, but times have changed. Unlike TV, there are no rules limiting the volume of ads online. Unlike TV, there is no watershed online. And unlike TV, online delivers advertisers their holy grail: an audience of one, whose likes and demographics are known.


Governments must stop limiting their concerns to the content of ads, and instead urgently curb the practice of serving invasive, manipulative ads to kids whatever their content. They’re kids, not consumers.