Guest Blog: Dr Jean Adams discusses junk food marketing restrictions

Dr Jean Adams

Senior University Lecturer in Dietary Public Health Research

University of Cambridge


Last week celebrity chef Jamie Oliver launched his #AdEnough campaign in the UK.  Celebrities, parents and children posted pictures of themselves hiding their eyes to social media to signify that the only junk food ad-blocker UK children currently have is covering their eyes.  Jamie is joining many other groups who have called on the UK government to introduce a ‘9pm watershed’ on television ‘junk food’ advertising.

There is ample evidence that exposure to food advertising influences what food children choose to eat, ask their parents to buy, and buy for themselves. As most food advertising in the UK, and globally, is for less healthy foods, this is likely to be contributing to childhood obesity.

In the UK we already have legal restrictions on what foods can be advertised to children on TV. Adverts for foods high in fat, salt or sugar cannot be shown in or between programmes that are of particular interest to children. A scoring algorithm is used to determine which foods are high in fat, salt or sugar – foods are given points based on less healthy nutrients; with points deducted for healthy content. Those with a final score above a cut-off can’t be advertised. Programmes of particular interest to kids are those shown on children’s channels or with a high percentage of child viewers. The percentage is key. Even when lots of children are watching, if lots of adults are also watching and the percentage of children isn’t high (as is the case with many family shows and sporting events), the restrictions don’t apply.

The food industry often argues that we have some of the strictest regulations on TV food advertising to children in the world. This is undoubtedly true. But it’s from a low base. Whilst the World Health Organisation recommends that all member states take steps to reduce the impact of food marketing on children, internationally most countries either have no restrictions or rely on the food industry to self-regulate – an approach that appears to have minimal impact on children’s exposure to less healthy food advertising.

Despite the apparent strength of the UK restrictions, our research has found that they didn’t seem to change the proportion of advertising kids see that is for less healthy foods. But we did find that they were associated with an increase in the proportion of advertising that adults were seeing for less healthy foods. We think that the junk food ads moved from kids’ programmes, to family programmes – so kids were still seeing them, but now so too were their parents.

The 9pm watershed that Jamie Oliver and others are calling for would prohibit all adverts for less healthy foods before 9pm. This approach hasn’t yet been tried anywhere in the world so it’s not clear what impact it would have. It would certainly overcome the problem of junk food ads being shown on family shows. But experience with the current restrictions suggests that food marketers can find clever ways around restrictions. Not only did the adverts seem to move from kids to family shows. There also seemed to be an increase in adverts for brands such as McDonald’s that we often associate with less healthy products but which don’t fall foul of the restrictions, because they don’t explicitly show or mention any of their less healthy products.

An important reason for the concern about marketing for less healthy food is that it predominates. In one study we found that 63% of food adverts on UK TV were for less healthy foods, and only 3% were for fruit and veg. Alongside restricting ads for less healthy foods, another approach might be to increase ads for healthy food. Whilst individual growers of fruit and vegetables might not have the financial resources for multi-channel marketing campaigns, co-ordination could allow this. The  Food Foundation is currently trying to do just this. They already have a prototype veg promotion brand and will be crowd-funding support to launch a multi-media campaign later this month.

Tackling childhood obesity, and changing children’s relationship with food are tricky problems. We are likely to need multiple, co-ordinated strategies to really get to grips with them. Certainly restricting adverts for less healthy foods and increasing adverts for healthy foods are likely to be two useful contributions to the solution.

With Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s appearance on May 1st at the Health Select Committee it will be interesting to watch the Government’s unfolding plans with the second stage of the Childhood Obestity Strategy rumoured to be coming out in the Autumn.