The hidden costs of the junk food ad ban

Matthew Evans

July 31, 2020

On 27 July, the government announced its intention to bring in a 9pm watershed on high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) food and drink advertising on television and online. Not only that, but the government went further than many had anticipated by also including its aim for a consultation on introducing a total HFSS advertising restriction online.

This news was widely covered in the media as a “junk food” advertising ban, a phrase that may be simple, but which masks a much more complicated picture. Products classed as high in fat, sugar or salt according to the government’s nutrient profile model, and which could therefore be covered by the ban, cover a variety of commonplace kitchen items. These are products found in most kitchens and cupboards, ranging from cooking and salad oils, margarine and spreads, cheese, stock cubes, tomato ketchup, soy sauce… I could go on.

But that’s not the end by any means. The online aspect of the government’s proposals may well impact small businesses that use online advertising to reach their customers from your local fish and chip shop to your local small-scale cheese producer. All this comes at a time when the government is emphasising its wish to grow the economy and boost business in the wake of Covid-19. These proposals run counter to these aims.

The economic impact for the food and drink sector, the advertising industry and for media is also likely to be huge. The £28bn food and soft drink industry employs 430,000 people directly and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs indirectly through the supply chain. The advertising industry supports a further million jobs and finances British culture, media content and sport, valued at £10bn a year.

£1 spent on advertising ultimately translates into £6 for the UK economy as a whole. Given the government’s impact assessment calculated a £171.2m impact on ad spend if the 9pm watershed goes ahead, this would translate to over £1bn in annual economic loss to the UK economy overall. But these estimates were prior to the impact of Covid-19 and forecasts now suggest that spend on advertising will drop by £4bn this year.

UK advertising rules on HFSS foods advertising are already among the strictest in the world and restrict the advertising of HFSS food or drink products in and around TV programmes commissioned for, or likely to appeal to children. The rules for all other media, including online, restrict HFSS ads to media where under 16s make up more than 25 per cent of the audience.

The proposals announced this week will not only affect business in constituencies right across the country, but they will inhibit freedom of choice – the cornerstone of a liberal democracy. Not only that, but the government itself acknowledges they may not even achieve their desired effect. Its very own research on a 9pm TV watershed last year found that such a measure would remove only 1.7 calories per day from a child’s diets. This equates to half a Smartie per day – a tiny amount compared to the £1bn loss this could cause to the economy. A huge price to pay for very little return.


Written by Matthew Evans

Matthew Evans is head of corporate affairs at the Advertising Association.


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