Wednesday 11 November 2020

Boris's bonkers food advertising ban

The government has published its consultation on banning online advertising for so-called 'junk food'. Once again, civil servants have been put in the position of having to turn a simplistic idea from the 'public health' lobby into a workable policy. It's an impossible job. The idea was sold to politicians as a way of reducing children's 'exposure' to KFC and McDonald's adverts, but there is no way of clamping down on food that snobs don't like without impacting food that most people consider normal, even healthy. Nor is there a way of sticking it to big business without sticking it to small business (as the hilarious Farmdrop episode showed).
Since the Farmdrop farce, the government has slightly amended its definition of 'junk food' for the purpose of its new bans. Instead of including all HFSS (high in fat, sugar or salt) food, it now intends to include all foods that are classified as HFSS and are part of Public Health England's food reformulation programmes. This excludes a few products that cannot possibly be reformulated, such as olive oil and raisins, but not many.
The sugar reduction programme includes pretty much anything with added sugar in it: cakes, biscuits, jam, pastries, ice cream, yoghurts, cereals, desserts, etc. while the calorie reduction programme includes:
•bread with additions (eg olives, cheese etc.)
•crisps and savoury snacks
•savoury biscuits, crackers and crispbreads
•potato products (eg chips, croquettes, mashed potato etc.)
•sausages (raw and cooked) and sausage meat products, frankfurters and hotdogs, burgers
•meat, fish and vegetarian pastry pies and other pastry products
•cooking sauces and pastes
•table sauces and dressings
•pasta/rice/noodles with added ingredients and flavours
•ready meals with carbohydrate accompaniment (potato, rice, noodles, pasta, etc.) – fish, meat and meat alternatives
•meal centres without carbohydrate accompaniment (potato, rice, noodles, pasta, etc.) – fish, meat and meat alternatives
•prepared dips and composite salads as meal accompaniments (eg. coleslaw, potato salad, guacamole, salsa etc.)
•egg products/dishes (eg quiche)
• food to go eg sandwiches, boxed main meal salads etc
Quite extensive, then. 

The government originally planned to ban the promotion of these products online before 9pm, but it has now decided to ban it entirely. So if you make sausages, pies, jam or cakes for a living, how do you market your wares on the primary advertising medium of the 21st century?

You won't be able to, basically. The ad ban being proposed is more extensive than anything tried elsewhere in the world. It covers all social media, all commercial websites and even your own website, emails and text messages.

The scope of the restriction would include, but is not limited to, for example:

  • commercial email, commercial text messaging and other messaging services
  • marketers' activities in non-paid for space, for example on their website and on social media, where the marketer has editorial and/or financial control over the content
  • online display ads in paid-for space (including banner ads and pre/mid-roll video ads)
  • paid-for search listings; preferential listings on price comparison sites
  • viral advertisements (where content is considered to have been created by the marketer or a third party paid by the marketer or acting under the editorial control of the marketer, with the specific intention of being widely shared. Not content solely on the grounds it has gone viral)
  • paid-for advertisements on social media channels - native content, influencers etc
  • in-game advertisements
  • commercial classified advertisements
  • advertisements which are pushed electronically to devices
  • advertisements distributed through web widgets
  • in-app advertising or apps intended to advertise
  • advergames
  • advertorials

If you're in the wedding cake business, for example, you can forget about putting a banner ad on the website of your local newspaper. If you run a café and want to email your customers about your tasty desserts, you won't be able to. If you own a bakery and want to climb the Google search results for 'cakes' in your area, you'll be breaking the law.

It is extraordinary that the government is proposing a ban on companies advertising on their own websites and in their own emails. However, it has benevolently offered an exemption for 'factual claims'.

We recognise that companies should be able to make available factual information about their products. Therefore we propose that advertisers remain able to feature such information on their own websites or other non-paid-for space online under their control, including their own social media channels.

We consider that factual claims include but are not limited to:

  • the names of products
  • nutritional information
  • price statements
  • product ingredients
  • name and contact details of the advertiser
  • provenance of ingredients
  • health warnings and serving recommendations
  • availability or location of products
  • corporate information on, for example, the sales performance of a product
This is rather like France's alcohol advertising ban which allows a certain amount of advertising so long as the copy is limited to the name, price and origin of the product. A factual claim, such as a list of ingredients, is distinct from a promotional claim, such as 'delicious' or 'bargain'. The latter will be banned under the Conservatives, the alleged party of business. On commercial platforms, even factual claims will be banned.
The government seems to have been inspired by the EU's ban on e-cigarette advertising under which "factual claims about products [are] permitted on marketers’ own websites and, in certain circumstances, in other non-paid-for space online under the marketer’s control." The consultation document acknowledges the "regulatory challenges arising from having to make a distinction between factual claims and promotional claims" and explicitly mentions the e-cigarette ad ban and several Advertising Standards Authority rulings that have resulted from it. It is worth reading those rulings if you want an idea of how strict the rules on food advertising are going to be. 
The government is shafting broadcasters with its TV advertising ban and now it is shafting online platforms and countless food producers up and down the country. And for what? The government hasn't produced an Impact Assessment for the round-the-clock online ad ban, but its previous Impact Assessment estimated that an online ban between 5.30am and 9pm would reduce children's energy intake by 0.3 calories per day - and even that pathetic outcome is based on junk science from proponents of the ban.
This is madness. I don't know how the government have allowed this to snowball like it has, but it's their problem now. It is a mess of their own making. They allowed policy to be formulated by fanatical single-issue pressure groups and this is the dog's dinner they've been left with.

Contrary to what I said above, the government has produced a new Impact Assessment. Conveniently, the Department of Health claims to have dramatically underestimated the amount of HFSS advertising seen by kids in its previous Impact Assessment. 

We now estimate around 15.1 billion child HFSS impressions online in the UK in 2019, up from our original estimate of 0.7 billion in 2017. This significant uplift is due to methodological changes in how the size of the online is estimated.
This allows the government to increase the putative benefit of the policy. Whereas before it claimed that children would reduce their energy intake by a risible 0.3 calories a day, it now claims the online ban will reduce it by a negligible 2.8 calories a day.

Whether they underestimated this 'exposure' by 90 per cent last time of have inflated it twenty-fold this time, it doesn't inspire much confidence in the Department of Health's competence.

(The government has also slightly increased its estimate of how many calories kids consume as a result of seeing HFSS ads, even though there is no decent evidence that they consume any more and the studies that they do are low quality. The meta-analysis the government is relying on is garbage.)

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