We Know What's Good for You

Article excerpt

Will The National Food Alliance's call for tighter regulation on food advertising to children succeed? Donu Kogbara looks at the organisation's burgeoning influence

Thou shalt not consume two bars of chocolate on TV. Thou shalt not covet Harry Enfield's supermarket trolley full of Dime bars. The Independent Television Commission introduced these, and other, commandments to its Code of Advertising Standards and Practice last month, taking its lead from the consumer protectionist organisation, the National Food Alliance.

The bad news for food advertisers and their agencies is that the NFA has ambitions, which are beginning to be realised, to bring about further regulation on the advertising of "unhealthy foods". Its grand plan is, nobly, to improve the dietary intake of Britons; its ill-chosen target is advertising.

The ITC's Code, according to the NFA, doesn't go far enough and it would like children's TV to become an "advertisement-free zone". "The ITC has failed to address the cumulative effects of broadcast advertising on children," says Susan Dibb, the NFA's project officer.

The NFA describes itself as an "association of voluntary, professional, health, consumer and other public interest organisations". Its support comes from a diverse range of members and endorsers, from the British Dental Association and Children's Society to Friends of the Earth and the Vegetarian Society. It is partly funded by the Department of Health and Health Education Authority, and claims to broadly echo parental, medical and governmental concerns about health and diet.

Another source of income for the NFA had, until last week, been the Baring Foundation (an offshoot of Baring Brothers, Britain's oldest and now ruined merchant bank). The foundation had been paying for the NFA's controversial Food Advertising Project, but a foundation spokesperson says that its beneficiaries will soon have to find funds elsewhere.

Despite NFA co-ordinator Jeannette Longfield's claim that her organisation is under-resourced, only interested in health issues, willing to work with big business and not half as influential as some people think, its critics remain unconvinced. There are dark mutterings in the ad industry about concealed funding sources, wild-eyed monomania, conspiracies, censorship and a hidden agenda. "I do not believe that the NFA's only aim is to improve our eating habits," says one adman.

Such antagonism comes, in part, as a reaction to the provocatively titled report "Children: Advertisers' Dream, Nutrition Nightmare", penned by Dibb. The report claims that "children are more responsive to, and influenced by, advertising than adults", and that "advertising not only directly influences children's food preferences and choices, but also does so indirectly through its influence on parents and peers". From these assumptions the NFA goes on to recommend an array of measures that include: advertisement-free children's TV; a "levy on particular food advertisers" to be put toward subsidies for advertisers of foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables; and restrictions on the content of advertising snack foods to children.

Simon Bullimore, UK managing director of Mars Confectionery and president of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, is one of many who have reacted strongly to the attack. At ISBA's policy conference Bullimore wondered where "nutritional correctness" might lead. "What," he asked, "about those who drink or like driving fast cars or enjoy eating meat? Their turn may come."

But Dibb counters: "As the MD of a company that produces sweets purely for the purpose of making a profit, he can hardly be regarded as impartial."

Bullimore's broadside against the NFA was based on comments made by Professor Barwise of London Business School - in a study commissioned by the Advertising Association. According to Barwise, Dibb's arguments are "dangerously one-sided... and the NFA's case falls down because its logic is weak. …