News Analysis: Public Health Report - in the Hands of Advertisers

Article excerpt

The government has left the door open for food companies to make their own regulatory proposals.

The government White Paper on health published last week was not as prescriptive in the area of promoting food to children as some had feared. Certainly, groups campaigning for tighter legislative controls were disappointed by the document's content, complaining it did not go far enough in addressing concerns about childhood obesity.

Nevertheless, there is much for food and drink marketers to consider.

The government asserts that there is a strong case for further restricting the advertising to children of food and drink products that are high in fat, salt and sugar, and action needs to be taken not just in relation to TV ads, but all elements of advertising including sponsorship, packaging and point of sale, as well as in areas such as labelling.

The government's aim is for change to be achieved through self-regulation.

Its proposals include establishing a food and drink advertising and promotion forum to strengthen voluntary codes. Pressure is also building on manufacturers to fund health education campaigns. But the government's apparent emphasis on self-regulation and a collaborative approach with manufacturers is backed by a clear determination to effect change in the 'nature and balance' of food promotion. If this is not forthcoming by 2007, it will go to legislation.

So how has the marketing industry reacted? One senior food and drink executive says the White Paper 'holds pretty much what we expected, with the use of strong language on regulation to make a point most (of us were) already aware of'.

Changing priorities

When it comes to the possibility of a ban on advertising to children, the same executive claims that, contrary to popular belief, leading food and drink firms 'wouldn't mind a ban on ads to kids', as it would help restrict new entrants to the market. He also maintains that the decline in corner shops means children have less time alone in which to buy than before: 'Kids have never been less important when it comes to the purchasing and consumption of food and drink. As the gatekeepers, the parents are a more important target audience now.'

As the White Paper has indicated priority areas, rather than imposing solutions, there is still a lack of clarity about what lies around the corner. 'So much depends on the outcome of the review the White Paper has signalled it wants Ofcom to lead,' says Kraft Foods corporate affairs manager Jonathan Horrell. 'We will work with whatever codes of practice are put in place. We feel effective self-regulation is the right way forward.'

Perhaps not surprisingly, advertisers who were prepared to comment for this analysis were at pains to stress how much they are already doing to address these concerns. Horrell points to the reformulation of Kraft Dairylea Lunchables to include pure orange juice and low-fat yoghurt instead of a chocolate sweet. However, he accepts that balanced lifestyle messages will play an important part in communications, and is in favour of clearer on-pack labelling. 'The important thing is to make sure the information helps people.'

Coca-Cola, however, remains unconvinced that the government's proposed introduction of a 'simplistic traffic light scheme' for labelling will be effective in providing clear nutritional guidance. …