Food heavyweights batter proposals for online ad ban

hamburger-2683042_1920More than 800 food and drink manufacturers – including Unilever, Mars, Britvic, Kellogg’s and Associated British Foods – have joined the fight against Government plans to ban all online advertising for so-called junk food, claiming the proposal was “disproportionate” and that targeting tools could easily assuage concerns.

The companies, which between them own more than 3,000 UK brands, insist they have not been given enough time to submit detailed objections. The Government first mooted it would banish ads for food and drink brands high in fat salt and sugar (HFSS) in August 2019, and then again in July this year.

However, these proposals were only to move TV and online ads beyond the 9pm watershed; earlier this month it was announced that the ban would extend to all online ads, no matter what time of day.

At the time, advertising and marketing industry trade bodies argued that such a move would be a “huge blow” to the business at a time when it is already “reeling from the impact of Covid-19”.

Now, the food companies have added their weight to the attack; while they say they support Government efforts to tackle obesity, they believe the measures go too far.

The letter states: “The food and drink industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK, worth more than £28bn to the economy, employing almost 500,000 people… It feeds households but also very importantly sustains a hospitality industry which in 2019 employed 3.2million people, generated £133bn in turnover and delivered £43bn in tax receipts to the Treasury.

“The advertising industry supports a further million jobs and finances British culture, media content and sport valued at £10bn a year.”

The missive goes on to point out that there is still no agreed definition of which foods the Government is including in these proposals, adding: “They are so broad they even capture family favourites from chocolate to peanut butter to sausage rolls.”

Ministers estimate children aged under 16 were exposed to 15 billion junk food ads online in 2019, compared to 700 million in 2017. But the firms pointed to sophisticated online targeting tools which will allow them to aim ads at adult audiences, not children.

The letter also voiced concern about plans to police how producers described their products on their own websites and social media channels, saying this would disproportionately impact smaller businesses – which make up 96% of the industry.

“Is it really the Government’s intention that a local wedding cake business, for example, would not be able to share product details on its Instagram account in order to grow its sales?” the letter states.

It adds: “The timing of this consultation is frankly astonishing, especially as the Government’s stated ambition is to introduce these proposed advertising restrictions at the end of 2022. There is no reason to introduce this consultation and demand submission of responses with such haste, while effectively limiting our opportunity to respond before the end of December.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health & Social Care said: “We have committed to restricting HFSS adverts on television before 9pm, but we also need to go further to address how children can be influenced online by adverts promoting unhealthy foods.

“We have launched a consultation to gather views from the public and industry stakeholders to understand the impact and challenges of introducing a total ban on the advertising of these products online.”

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