SPECTRUM Consortium

Potential withdrawal of online advertising ban of unhealthy food

Dr Lauren Carters-White explains why the news that the Government is potentially reneging on their proposal to ban online advertisements of HFSS products is a particularly concerning one - especially as this was highlighted as a flagship policy in Summer 2020 and a key part of the UK Government’s new obesity strategy

Dr Lauren Carters-White profile picture
Dr Lauren Carters-White, SPECTRUM Research Fellow

An example of the power of industry in the policymaking process

On Friday 26th March, The Sun (Cole, 2021) published an article stating that Whitehall insiders have indicated that Government ministers are planning to withdraw the policy proposal seeking to ban the online advertising of high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) products.  This, according to The Sun, is partly down to a letter signed by over 3000 brands that states that such a policy would be ‘disproportionate’ and come at a high financial cost to industry, as well as a yet-to-be-seen Impact Assessment that claims the policy would only lead to a 700kcal reduction per child per year.  The total online advertising ban policy proposed as part of the Government’s new approach to addressing high rates of obesity in the UK arose as a result of emerging evidence demonstrating an association between obesity and severe infection with COVID-19 (Sattar et al., 2020) as well as the UK Prime Minister’s own experience of hospitalisation with the virus.  As part of its proposal, the UK Government pledged to hold a consultation on the total online advertising ban policy, primarily aimed at protecting children from such advertising, which closed on December 22nd 2020.  The results of the consultation are yet to be announced, with no indication as to when they may be released.  This policy represented a positive shift in the approach the Government were planning to adopt to address obesity, from one that not only focused on individual behaviours and ‘willpower’, to one that (albeit minimally) somewhat acknowledged the structural drivers of obesity. 

Industry perspective

From an industry perspective, the announcement of this policy was potentially worrying for two (of several) reasons. One, it seeks to prevent industry from accessing and utilising a highly effective (Critchlow et al., 2019), and highly profitable, advertising medium. Two, it may have potentially diminished their power within the rule-setting process.  Currently, the regulation of online advertising of HFSS products is self-regulatory through the Advertising Standards Agency (Conway, 2020), and as such industry possess extensive rule-setting power within the regulatory process (Fuchs and Lederer, 2007).  Despite their insistence that they wish to be a responsible industry, which supports individuals to make ‘informed’ dietary choices (White, 2020), their primary objective is to satisfy their stakeholders and generate profit.  As such, they will employ an array of techniques (Moodie et al., 2013), such as lobbying, framing their industry as ‘victims’ and undertaking corporate social responsibility activities – including self-regulation - (Freudenberg, 2014), to frame their industry as essential to the policymaking process and ensure that they maintain their powerful position within policy debates (Fuchs and Lederer, 2007). 

Public health perspective

From a public health perspective, the announcement of the potential withdrawal of the total online advertising ban policy proposal is deeply concerning for a myriad of reasons, but let’s focus on four here.  One, it goes against increasing scientific evidence that online advertising of HFSS products contributes to unhealthy dietary preferences amongst children (Coates et al., 2019, Coates et al., 2020, Smith et al., 2019).  Two, it undermines the argument that obesity is complex and multi-faceted, requiring a multi-pronged approach of both individual- and population-level policies and interventions (Lee et al., 2017). Three, it suggests that each policy proposed to address obesity are considered individually (in both financial and health impact terms), rather than the cumulative gains that a multi-pronged approach to obesity would bring.  Four, and perhaps of most concern here, it demonstrates the power that both the food and advertising industries possess in the policymaking process (McKee et al., 2019, Wood et al., 2021), and their ability to sway policy decisions at an early stage without adequate input from public health.   

Implications

Although there are many examples of the food and advertising industries exerting, maintaining and extending the power they possess in relation to the online advertising ban, the idea that this announcement may have been made after the sending of a letter signed by 3000 brands (Cole, 2021), in addition to an undisclosed Impact Assessment of the viability of such a policy, is incredibly problematic.  This is especially when we consider that the results of the policy consultation, which took place in December 2020, have yet to be announced. Why does a letter from 3000 brands outweigh the evidence generated by academics, and the voices of children and parents struggling to navigate such an unhealthy food environment?  It arguably demonstrates that industry actors have a seat at the policy table in a way that public health advocates, academics or the public do not.  It undermines the purpose of consultations and evidence generation, whilst simultaneously continuing to promote the voice of industry to one of higher standing than that of public health or the public.  

As so accurately tweeted by Adam Briggs (2021), “if this is true, it is so disappointingly shortsighted”.  Not only because it undermines any real political commitment to addressing the structural drivers of obesity in the UK, but because it also maintains the current power status quo that allows for unhealthy commodity industries to steer public health policy in directions more favourable to their industry interests (Moodie et al., 2013, McKee et al., 2019).