Childhood Obesity – changes in the advertising rules

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New rules on advertising of high fat, sugar and salt (“HFSS”) products to children.

On Tuesday 12 September, I was driving home listening to the Homework Sucks section on Radio 2 with Simon Mayo.

A listener (and their child) had submitted a question about front of pack traffic light labelling, the UK’s voluntary scheme for indicating the proportion of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in off-the-shelf products.

The question went roughly like this: “are there any products that would have four red lights?”

Wednesday 13th’s programme revealed that a combination of a sausage roll and a dollop of salad cream would make all the red lights flash!

I have tried in vain to find examples of products where the traffic light labelling shows four red lights. This is likely because the manufacturers of such products have chosen not to comply with the voluntary scheme. Not very surprising really as it would almost certainly lead to negative publicity and a reduction in sales.

Whilst manufacturers and retailers can opt in or out of the traffic light scheme, depending on how offensive the nutritional content of a product may be, some new rules have been brought into force by the Advertising Standards Authority (“ASA”) to regulate the advertising of HFSS products to children.

These rules are valid on all advertising from 1 July 2017.

So what are the new rules?

They are part of the CAP (5 and 15) and BCAP (5 and 13) rules on advertising food and drink to children.

The rules can be briefly summarized as follows:

1. No advertising of HFSS products to children 12 or under involving

    • promotions – such as money off, bundle deals or gift incentives
    • celebrities – eg Justin Bieber advertising Yorkie Barsc. licensed characters – Disney characters advertising Big Macs

2. No advertising of HFSS products to children 16 or under. This prohibition affects the context and media in which the advertising appears. For example, the advertisement may appear before a movie in a cinema. The movie may itself be directed at children or at least 25% of the audience may be persons under the age of 16.

3. Websites and Games: The same rules apply – if the content of the site or game is directed at children or the audience is likely to be at least 25% children 16 years or younger, then advertising HFSS products is not permitted.


What happens if advertisers breach these rules? To date, there do not appear to have been any complaints received by the ASA regarding advertising of HFSS products to children. Likely, marketers will be careful to ensure that their client’s adverts are compliant here to ensure no adverse PR. So, the rules should be effective in reducing direct advertising of HFSS products to children.

If a complaint is upheld, the ASA usually rules that the advert cannot be used in the same form again and may impose a period of time during which the company concerned must have all its advertising reviewed by Copy Advice before publication.

The ASA may also refer the matter to Trading Standards who have their own penalties to impose where there are breaches of consumer law. The most obvious example would be where an HFSS product is advertised to children, for example in an advert where a licensed character is featured, but the advertising claims that the product is not HFSS. This would be misleading advertising if evidence showed that the claim was false. Doubtless examples of this kind will be few and far between. Let’s hope for a positive effect on the collective weight of the nation’s children, although even the ASA comments that advertising is not the only influence on children in this regard.

Perhaps regulations on screen time and fidget spinning should be brought out to discourage a sedentary lifestyle and encourage more activity in our young ones?

Watch this space! For more information about traffic light food labelling, please click here.


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