Friday 21 March 2014

Action on Junk Food Marketing

If there's one thing Britain really needs it's another nanny state campaign group that starts with the words 'Action on...', so imagine my delight when I heard that Action on Junk Food Marketing was being launched today. It wants to ban the marketing of whatever foods are currently out of fashion on television before 9pm. Its press release - which will doubtless be made even worse by inept journalists - bears very little relationship to the research it is announcing. It is, to be blunt, dishonest.

Their big claim is that 22 per cent of prime time television advertising is for 'junk food'...

An analysis of over 750 adverts found almost one in four TV ads shown between eight and nine pm were for food (22%), with viewers seeing as many as eleven junk food adverts per hour.

I have seen this research (in reality, a Word document) and there are several errors in this sentence alone. Firstly, 22% is closer to one in five than one in four. Secondly, the figure is actually 17%, not 22% - one in six. Thirdly, and most importantly, these 17% of adverts include all food ads, all supermarket ads and even includes adverts for vitamins. The research itself never uses the word 'junk', nor does it give an estimate of how many commercials featured 'junk food' by any definition. Nevertheless, the press release is entitled: 'Family TV programmes saturated with junk food ads'.

There then follows some ridiculous assertions about how food advertising is aimed at children...

With regards to the primary target audience of food adverts, the majority were aimed at families (60%), however children or child aged characters (not including brand equity or licensed characters) were used in the majority of food adverts in this sample (52.6%).

It's pretty hard to depict families without showing 'child aged characters', is it not? What do they want, Steptoe and Son?

The clips analysed seem designed for a young audience, with nearly a third (31%) of food adverts shown between eight and nine pm using themes of ‘fun’ rather than more adult concerns of price or convenience.

Because having fun is not an 'adult concern', is it? What we really want is a price list, the duller the better.

Around a third of ads studied ended with a website or Twitter hashtag - a key way of reaching teenagers, as thirty six per cent of 8-15 year olds use smartphones or laptops ‘most times’ when watching TV.

One of these days I must try to catch up with this 'internet' phenomenon that kids talk about these day. As I understand it, youths today spend most of their time reading about butter on the Flora website and catching up with the latest news from Aldi on Twitter. Alas, as an adult, these 'websites' of which they speak are not really my cup of tea. 

There is more of this drivel but the 'study' itself is quite simple. The authors sat around watching television during the last hour of the watershed (8pm - 9pm). They watched just three programmes: The X Factor, Hollyoaks and The Simpsons. As they watched this stuff, they counted all the adverts that featured food or food retailers. This turned out to be 22% on ITV and 11.8% on Channel 4.

The list of alleged offenders is extremely broad. It includes ASDA, Tesco, Clover margarine, McCain baked potatoes, Subway, Flora, Berocca vitamins, crumpets, Coca-Cola Zero, Lidl roasts, bread, Uncle Ben's rice, Liberte yoghurt and many others. All of these are implicitly portrayed as 'junk food' in the press release.

There are two possible explanations for this. Either the health lobby has become so fanatical that they think children should be protected from seeing adverts for rice and crumpets, or they have deliberately misrepresented the results of their research for dramatic effect.

I will let you, dear reader, draw your own conclusion as to whether these are scrupulously honest people, but to help you on your way, take a look at the testimonies from ordinary people that they use in their two press releases. The first is the English press release, the second is for Scotland. See if you can spot any similarities.

Here's the English press release:

Lyn Rodney, whose diabetes diagnosis led to a healthier diet for her and her teenage son, said: “As a busy mum, it’s hard enough to make sure your family eats healthily without seeing ads for junk food wherever you go.

“In the past, unhealthy food became a quick and easy option for me and my son. However, I now know that being overweight may have contributed to my diabetes and I want to do everything within my power to stop my son getting the same condition.

“It’s upsetting to see so many ads for junk food on TV and online. I’m getting behind this call to restrict junk food marketing for the sake of my son and the future health of kids his age.”

And here's the Scottish press release:

Maureen Smyth from Langholm, whose two daughters are aged 15 and 10, said: “As a busy mum, it’s hard enough to make sure your family eats healthily without seeing ads for junk food wherever you go.

“I’ve always encouraged my children to make healthier choices about what they eat, but it’s much more difficult when they’re bombarded with junk food on TV and online. I’m getting behind this call to restrict junk food marketing for the sake of my daughters and the future health of kids their age.”


In debunking research like this, there is a risk of tacitly accepting the premise of the authors, so let it be said loud and clear that there is nothing - absolutely nothing - wrong with advertising chocolate bars, biscuits, white bread or any other so-called 'junk food' before 9pm. Even if children bought their own food (which they generally don't), and even if advertising somehow compels people to buy things (which it doesn't), there can be no justification in a free society for forcing food and drink manufacturers to advertise in the wee small hours.

Begone with you, Action on Junk Food Marketing. Take your deceitful propaganda with you and never darken our doorstep again.

(I'm retiring to bed now, but it's no surprise to that The Guardian has been first off the blocks to report this rubbish.)


The BBC has not quite taken the press release at face value and has dug into the data itself. It says...

Action on Junk Food Marketing analysed 750 adverts shown during the X Factor on ITV and the Simpsons and Hollyoaks on Channel 4 over 20 hours.

It found one in 10 promoted fast food restaurants, confectionery or supermarket 'junk food'.

This figure is not in the report and seems to have come from combining the number of ads for supermarkets, fast food restaurants and chocolate/confectionery = 44% of the total food ads = about 10% of the total ads. This figure (which is less than half of the 22% flagged up in the press release) is closer to the truth, although it is very unlikely that all the supermarket ads were for 'junk food'.

The Beeb quotes the Advertising Association, which calls the report "lobbying dressed up as science". They say that the actual proportion of 'junk food' ads on TV between 8pm and 9pm is 5 per cent, not 10 per cent, let alone 22 per cent. Their response is worth reading:

“According to this report, just one in every twenty ads shown during family programmes are for brands which might be considered unhealthy and appealing to children. Those ads cannot appear around children’s programmes themselves and must not encourage poor eating habits or unhealthy lifestyles. That clearly shows the UK’s evidence-based approach to the advertising rules works, balancing sensible protections with the freedom to advertise, allowing companies to compete – to the benefit of us all – and providing important funding for free-to-air TV.”


Barman said...

A crap acronym too....

nisakiman said...

It's quite remarkable how there seems to be some sort of telepathic link between two mums, one in Scotland and one in England. There seems to be some correlation between watching junk food advertising and the development of an uncanny similarity of thought processes. I think more research is needed into this phenomenon. Government funded, of course, as it is in the public interest.

Vova said...

Daily Mash on to this too

As for these 'researchers' - in the light of comments by Siegel on what passes for research in tobacco control - it's just 'monkey see - monkey do'.

Fredrik Eich said...

what is needed is a new advocacy group called:

'Action on Action Groups'

Dr Evil said...

For many years I did not believe in or subscribe to the idea of 'junk' DNA. I knew it must be doing something and I was right. Likewise I do not subscribe to the idea of junk food. It's just food, whether it's a KFC bucket or a burger and fries from a well known chain run by a clown. What there are are junk diets. A junk diet is an unbalanced diet or one where gluttony is also involved. Eating KFC or a big Mac is fine if it's done sensibly and not too often. These idiots posting their idiotic analysis on a relatively small sample size is scaremongering hyperbole. At least the BBC did a bit of analysis instead of swallowing this rubbish.

Junican said...

The idea, Dr E, is that there is a target to aim it similar to Big Tobacco. All these "Actions on ...." follow that template.

Macheath said...

FE: 'Action on Action Groups'

Reminds me of a press release from 2010:

'Kirklees submit awards for award
Kirklees council has submitted thier [sic] Healthy choices award for a Food Champion award'