Charges of brainwashing may be an over-reaction, but food marketers can't afford to ignore the FSA's report.
'Adverts for junk food 'brainwash' children' roared the headline of last Wednesday's Evening Standard story on the investigation by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) into the marketing of food.
The report's not altogether startling conclusion is that there is a link between the promotion of food and children's consumption of it - in short, that advertising works. But brainwashing? Hardly. In fact, the most systematic study of research to date on the issue suggests nothing so dramatic.
But, while the report's writer, Professor Gerard Hastings of the University of Strathclyde's Centre for Social Marketing, admits the finding is hardly surprising, marketers would do well to take heed. In launching its report, the FSA has triggered a chain of events likely to have far-reaching consequences for the future of food marketing.
Food advertisers spent more than pounds 450m on marketing in the UK last year.
Each of the top ten - from top spender McDonald's to Kellogg's Corn Flakes - falls into one of the categories highlighted by the FSA as contributing to the rising problem of childhood obesity: breakfast cereals, confectionery, soft drinks, savoury snacks and fast food.
The report, based on a round-up of hundreds of pieces of research, said that advertisers use 'fun and fantasy' to promote food to kids, and that there is a significant contrast 'between the advertised diet and the recommended one'. Little money is being spent on promoting nutritious food to kids, it says, and there is evidence that advertising promotes category take-up as well as brand-switching.
In this context, the finding that advertising to kids 'does have an effect on their preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption', along with the report's labelling by Hastings as 'a watershed' and 'a time to recognise that this should inform future policy-making' is not exactly music to marketers' ears.
With pressure mounting from parliamentarians who favour a ban on TV ads in kids' programmes and in Brussels on food manufacturers' health claims (a UK consultation exercise on these proposals closes next month), the industry is facing its most daunting challenge yet to resist tighter marketing regulation.
But there's some solace. The report acknowledges that indirect influences like parents have a major effect on kids' food consumption, and it concedes that proving a link between food promotion and obesity is nigh on impossible, given that TV viewing is by its nature sedentary. It also admits the difficulty of separating the effect of TV ads from TV viewing in general. As a result, it says more research may be needed to investigate disciplines such as advertiser-funded programming.
That may be one of the subjects on the agenda in December when the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) attends a meeting with other food industry stakeholders convened by the FSA. …