Tom Watson to ad industry: Ban characters on cereal packs, or we will

Image credit: Bronac McNeil
Image credit: Bronac McNeil

Labour deputy leader promises to be 'biggest advocate the industry has ever seen' if adland plays ball.

Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, has thrown down the gauntlet to the advertising industry and brand owners, telling them to stop the use of cartoon characters on sugary food and drink voluntarily or be forced to do so by the next Labour government.

Speaking at the Advertising Association’s Lead conference in London this morning, Watson – who has achieved significant weight loss after ditching sugar from his own diet – reserved his most stringent criticism for breakfast cereals such as Kellogg’s Frosties and Coco Pops, whose packages are adorned with images of brand-owned characters.

The ad industry "has the power to take sugar off the table – to reinvent the British breakfast", Watson explained: "Some say that advertising is just a mirror on our culture, but I think it can shape our culture – and more than it does."

Cereal packs, he said, should be covered by advertising rules because they were "billboards on table tops, aimed at tiny tots".

Referring to the 1950s British Egg Marketing Board slogan written by Fay Weldon before she became a novelist, Watson said advertising could convince consumers to "Go to work on an egg, and not a box of obesity-inducing Kellogg’s cereals."

Watson pressed home that if the industry failed to take voluntary action, it would face new statutory regulation if and when Labour get into power.

But he also said: "If you solve that brief, I promise that when Labour are next in government, I will be the biggest advocate for UK advertising the industry has ever seen."

Watson had opened his speech by talking about his brief time as a junior account director at "a small agency in Chelsea" in the late 1980s.

"I absolutely loved that job," he said. "I loved the craic, the deadlines and the pitches, the drinking culture – and the absolute bullshit of it all."

In response to the speech, Kellogg said in a statement: "We think people know that we’ve been working hard to offer healthier choices in the morning – we’ve slashed sugar in Coco Pops by 40%, removed high-sugar Ricicles from sale and dropped the sugar in Rice Krispies too. At the same time, we’ve introduced new transparent labelling so people can make their own mind up about what they want to buy or not."

Earlier in the morning, Graham Stuart, parliamentary undersecretary at the Department for International Trade, talked up the department as "the only marketing arm of UK plc we’ve got" and outlined the ways it was working to support the ad industry and position the UK as the leading global hub for advertising.

But he also made clear that, when it comes to Brexit, if it comes to "a choice between economics and democracy", democracy must prevail – something that he said meant leaving the UK, even without a deal.

Stuart voted along with most Conservative MPs last night for the Brady amendment, which instructs the prime minister to return to Brussels to try to renegotiate the Northern Ireland "backstop" – something the European Union has repeatedly made clear it is not willing to consider.

Read Watson's full speech here

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