UK: Ofcom Introduces New Restrictions On Television Advertising Of Food And Drink Products Aimed At Children

Last Updated: 18 January 2007
Article by Paul Dacam and Gisele Salazar

INTRODUCTION

In March 2006, Ofcom, the independent regulator of television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services in the UK, published a consultation document outlining options for new restrictions on the regulation of food and drink advertising aimed at children. The consultation followed a request by the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to review the possibility of restrictions on the advertising of food to children. The paper outlined several options for consideration.

On 17 November 2006, Ofcom published the results of its consultation and details of significant new restrictions intended to limit children’s exposure to television advertising of food and drink products that are high in fat, salt and sugar ("HFSS products").

OFCOM’S CONSULTATION

The March 2006 consultation followed on from Ofcom’s review of television advertising of food and drink to children and its contribution to childhood obesity and general ill-health. Ofcom’s research, published in July 2004, found that television advertising had a modest direct effect on children’s food preferences and was one of a number of factors that contributed to children’s diets. It also recognised the costs in lost advertising revenue (even after mitigation through other advertising). However, Ofcom concluded that television advertising, particularly of HFSS products, did have an indirect effect on eating habits, and could be a contributory factor to the risk of child obesity. It therefore considered it appropriate and necessary to strengthen the rules regulating this area.

Ofcom’s consultation document proposed, in summary, three core options/packages plus an invitation to stakeholders to propose a fourth option (which could be a combination of the three core options or something entirely new as long as it was relevant and appropriate). The four options were:

  • Option 1. Timing restrictions on HFSS product advertising

No HFSS product advertising could be shown during children’s programmes, or during other programmes appealing to children up to nine years old. HFSS products would not be allowed to sponsor such programmes.

  • Option 2. Timing restrictions on all food and drink product advertisements

No food or drink product advertising (except government-endorsed campaigns) could be shown during children’s programming or other programmes appealing to children up to nine years old. No food and drink products would be allowed to sponsor such programmes.

  • Option 3. Limits on the duration of all food and drink product advertisements

No food or drink product advertising would be permitted for programmes aimed at preschool children. A limit would also be placed on the amount of food and drink advertising at times when children would be most likely to be watching (and on dedicated children’s channels).

  • Option 4. An invitation to stakeholders to propose a workable and effective option combining some or all of the above and/or a new element.

CONSULTATION RESULTS – THE NEW RESTRICTIONS

After consultation with interested parties, including the Food Standards Agency ("FSA")1 and the Food Advertising Unit ("FAU")2, Ofcom has decided to introduce significant new restrictions in order to limit children’s exposure to television advertising of HFSS products.

The proposed new rules and new restrictions are much more restrictive than anticipated by industry, particularly given Ofcom’s indication in its consultation document that it would balance any proposed measures against the aims of:

  • not impacting disproportionately on broadcasters’ revenue
  • avoiding intrusive regulations of advertising during adult airtime and
  • ensuring that any measures were appropriate.

The measures, which will apply to all UK-based broadcasters licensed by Ofcom and international broadcasters transmitting from the UK abroad, are aimed at food and drink products rated as HFSS products according to the Nutrient Profiling Scheme developed by the FSA. They include:

  • a total ban on the advertising of HFSS products during programmes of "particular appeal" to under 16 year olds.

This restriction ignores the 9 pm watershed and will apply at any time of day or night on any channel, including all cable and satellite children’s channels.

It will also mean that adult programmes which attract higher than average numbers of under 16 year old viewers will be subject to the restriction.

  • content restrictions for advertisements targeted at primary school-age children including:

– a ban on the use of celebrity or licensed-characters (such as cartoon characters) in such advertisements

– restrictions on promotions such as the offer of free gifts as part of advertisements and

– a ban on the making of nutritional or health claims in such advertisements

  • restrictions on product advertising applying equally to product sponsorship.3

Ofcom has justified its package of measures by reference to the significant percentage reductions in the number of HFSS foods and drink advertisements that children will view (estimated at 41% fewer for under 16 year olds and 51% for under nine year olds). Ofcom has estimated that it will initially cost broadcasters up to £39 million per year in lost revenue. These losses translate into around 0.7% of total revenue of the domestic channels and up to 15% of total revenue for dedicated children’s channels. However, it is intended that the restrictions will be phased in over a longer period for dedicated children’s channels (end of 2008 instead of March 2007 for other broadcasters) to enable them to adjust and mitigate the potential impact before the measures take effect.

TIMINGS

Ofcom has indicated that there will be a further short consultation to seek views on extending restrictions to protect older children. The original closing date for this consultation (15 December 2006) has been extended to 28 December 2006. Ofcom is expected to announce the outcome of this consultation and confirm details of the new rules by the end of January 2007. The revised content rules will come into force immediately for new campaigns but existing campaigns will have a grace period until 1 July 2007 before they need to comply with the new rules. The new scheduling restrictions will, in general, take effect by the end of March 2007 (before Easter). However, restrictions for dedicated children’s channels will be phased in gradually, with full implementation by December 2008. Ofcom will also be carrying out a review of the effectiveness and scope of the new rules, beginning in Autumn 2008.

POSSIBLE FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS

In addition to the measures taken by Ofcom, there is also growing movement at an EU level for action to be taken. The EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs, Markos Kyprianou, has suggested that children’s obesity is an EU-wide problem and has encouraged moves by the food industry to change advertising practice. Mr Kyprianou has indicated that legislation may be implemented if he considers that there is insufficient progress made by the industry voluntarily (see separate article on Commission activities to promote healthy diet and physical activity, page 13).

Furthermore, the issue has been discussed by the European Parliament, both in the context of the Commission’s Green Paper on Healthy Diets and Physical Activity,4 and in the review of the EU’s Television Without Frontiers Directive.5 At present there is some division among the Parliament’s expert advisers over the effects of television advertising of certain types of food to children. Despite this, there are clearly those in the Parliament and elsewhere who are pressing for legislative action from the EU.

Footnotes

1 The FSA favoured the use of its nutrient profiling model, classifying foods by levels of fat, salt or sugar, which it advised would lead to more appropriate targeting of advertising restrictions. The FSA's view was that any proposals should take account of children in the 10-15 years age group, and it suggested imposing a pre-9 pm ban on advertisements for HFSS products.

2 The FAU, a coalition of food, soft drink and advertising companies and representative groups, developed proposals in response to Ofcom’s option 4, favouring a different approach for dedicated children’s channels, with a focus on the under-10s. The FAU suggested the use of self-regulation and a revision of the BCAP television advertising standards code to bring about its proposed restrictions. Its response strongly rebutted the FSA’s favoured approach, reflecting a widespread industry view that the FSA’s nutrient profiling model was flawed and "not scientifically robust".

3 Ofcom’s full statement and consultation document can be accessed at http://www.ofcom.org.uk/media/news/2006/11/nr_20061117.

4 See "Commission issues Green Paper Promoting Healthy Diets and Physical Activity" in the March 2006 edition of the Lovells’ Food, Feed and Drink quarterly update, page 1. 16 Council Directive 89/552/EEC on the co-ordination of certain provisions laid down by law, regulation or administrative action in Member States concerning the pursuit of television broadcasting activities, as updated by Directive 97/36/EC.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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