Changes to TV ads are a political necessity but what that means, we don't yet know

Change4Life: Sugar Smart app encourages healthy eating
Change4Life: Sugar Smart app encourages healthy eating

For all the heat on our sector and childhood obesity, it boils down to a fundamental debate about the role of advertising, our responsibility to society and being trusted to regulate our own activities, writes the chief executive of the Advertising Association.

When The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) – the government’s nutrition advisors – announced last summer that the nation should cut down on the sweet stuff, it was sugar-rush time for campaigners and their set-menu of taxes and ad bans.

David Cameron's 2015 election manifesto had promised a new childhood obesity strategy, by all accounts he was taking it personally and Number 10 have made it clear that advertising is under close scrutiny. That’s understandable. We are industry at its most visible and like everyone else, have a part to play in tackling what has become a serious threat to the nation’s health.

Thanks to the leadership of AA president Andy Duncan, the industry was already on the front foot. Challenged by Richard Eyre at LEAD 2015 and through an initiative led by ISBA at the AA Council, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) had already been asked whether, in light of children’s changing media habits, it was time to look again at the rules.

We are industry at its most visible and like everyone else, have a part to play in tackling what has become a serious threat to the nation’s health.

The result was a CAP consultation, which closes on 22 July, on new rules to restrict HFSS advertising in non-broadcast media popular with children.

This aligns with rules already in place by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) and shows our self-regulatory system, once again proving effective and quick to respond to challenges.

In parallel, last year advertising’s leaders went further with an offer to government to embrace Big Society and work with brands, agencies and media to change the national conversation about healthy lives.

This "coalition of the willing" was dealt a blow with the surprise sugar tax announcement earlier in the year. With their number one policy in the bag, campaigners turned their lobbying towards a 9pm watershed for "high in fat, salt or sugar" (HFSS) TV ads, with public warnings that ignoring the issue will damn the prime minister’s strategy as "caving to industry".

The AA’s response, as ever, has been to point to the evidence. Experts agree that advertising’s link to child obesity, if any, is at the very margins. Economists know that in mature markets, advertising’s main function is to support price premiums, brand preference and loyalty.

On top of that comes Brexit and an imperative to build advertiser confidence, not undermine it further with arbitrary bans.

The essence of the debate is balance. We must use evidence to guide how we protect the most vulnerable in society from the undoubted influence of advertising. But at the same time, we must guard against gesture politics and create a predictable environment for advertisers.

With a new Conservative leader arriving sooner, not later, nothing is certain. The signals are that changes to TV advertising are considered a political necessity – but precisely what that means, we don’t yet know.

So when the strategy is finally published, look out for more consultation on advertising. The AA will continue to advocate for the right balance between effective, proportionate rules and the advertising freedoms that allow brands, agencies and media to thrive and compete.

Tim Lefroy is the chief executive of the Advertising Association

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