LONDON: British communications regulator Ofcom on Friday published details of significant restrictions intended to limit children's exposure to TV advertising of food and drink products high in fat, salt and sugar.

The result appears to satisfy no-one and the howls of protest by those on opposite sides of the child obesity debate could be heard in Ulan Bator, with the the health lobby screeching "betrayal" and the ad industry in Cassandra-mode wailing "ruination".

To dispassionate onlookers, however, it seems an evenly balanced set of proposals which inevitably will satisfy neither camp.

Ofcom says its primary objective is "to reduce significantly the exposure of children under 16 to the advertising of food and drink products that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS)".

It aims to achieve this "by the most targeted and proportionate means possible", balancing this objective against its statutory duties to secure television programmes of high quality and wide appeal [although cynics say it has yet to come within striking distance of the latter goal].

Ofcom's primary proposals are . . .

  • Restrictions on product advertising will also apply to product sponsorship.

  • Restrictions targeting the advertising of HFSS products will use the current Nutrient Profiling scheme developed by the Food Standards Agency.

  • On the balance of the evidence, Ofcom believes that the best way to achieve its objectives would be a total ban on HFSS food and drink advertisements in and around all programmes of particular appeal to children under the age of 16, broadcast at any time of day or night on any channel.

  • This would include a total ban in and around all children's programming and on dedicated children's channels as well as in youth-oriented and adult programmes which attract a significantly higher than average proportion of viewers under the age of 16.

  • As a result of Ofcom's decision to target regulation to ensure the protection of the under-sixteens (as opposed to the under-nines, as first proposed) there will be a short and focused consultation to seek views on extending restrictions to protect these older children. This will close on 15 December with the final determination in January 2007.

  • In addition to general content rules requiring responsible advertising to all children at all times, Ofcom has also put forward new rules on the content of advertisements targeted at primary school children. These rules would ban the use of celebrities and characters licensed from third-parties (such as cartoons), promotional claims (such as free gifts) and health or nutrition claims.

  • The restrictions would apply to all broadcasters licensed by Ofcom and based in the UK, including international broadcasters transmitting from the UK to audiences overseas.
The regulator believes this package of measures will achieve a balance between protecting children and young viewers while minimizing the fiscal impact of the ban on commercial media.

It quantifies the total cost of the restrictions at a maximum initial £39 million ($73.85m; €57.59m) annually, falling over time to around £23m as broadcasters replace lost revenues from alternative sources. This is a fraction of the estimated £250m annual loss that would have been incurred by a 9pm 'watershed' ban.

Changes to rules governing the content of advertisements would take effect before the end of January 2007. New campaigns commissioned after that point would be required to comply with the new rules.

For dedicated children's channels restrictions would be phased in over twenty-four months to the end of 2008, thus recognizing the difficulty of such channels in finding swift replacements for the lost ad revenues.

The effectiveness and scope of new restrictions will be reviewed in autumn 2008, one year after the full implementation of the new content rules.

Says Ofcom ceo Ed Richards: "Based on the evidence and analysis we believe the case for intervention is clear. We will introduce significant but proportionate measures to protect children under 16."

Moreover: "We will look to advertisers and broadcasters to follow both the spirit as well as the letter of the rules we are putting in place."

On the media and advertising side of the fence, there is likely a concealed sigh of relief that the measures are not as draconian as had been feared. Nonetheless, this has not deterred a storm of protest.

Agency body the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising accuses Ofcom of "bowing to political pressure". It argues that the new restrictions will have no impact on the obesity crisis which is a 'calories in, calories out' issue. Instead, the measures will impact on over 90% of all current food and drink product advertising which currently funds commercial programming.

On behalf of the Advertising Association, director-general Andrew Brown declared his dismay that "Ofcom as an evidence-based regulator has become vulnerable to pressure and has departed from the first of its stated regulatory objectives . . . which is 'to reduce significantly the exposure of younger children to HFSS advertising'.

"The advertising industry has long accepted that new restrictions on food advertising to younger children are necessary, but only as part of a much wider response to the obesity crisis that promotes healthy lifestyles."

From the opposing camp, Philip Cullum, ceo of the National Consumer Council said he was "very disappointed" by the proposals as they didn't go far enough in covering shows such as Coronation Street.

Quoth Cullum: "This doesn't really get to the heart of the issue. [Ofcom] say they have taken a focus on children, but the proposals actually don't deliver that."

The full set of proposals can be viewed by clicking here.

Data sourced from multiple origins; additional content by WARC staff