Here’s the lowdown on the Government’s plans to introduce a total restriction on junk food adverts online.
- Children currently see a LOT of junk food adverts online
Research estimates that children in the UK see over 15 billion adverts for food and drink products that are high in fat, sugar and salt online. This is likely to be a considerable underestimate (read more here).
The new restriction will mean that children simply won’t see most of these adverts anymore because they won’t be there. They will still see adverts for other types of foods that are considered healthier.
- Junk food adverts significantly influence children’s food choices
There is wealth of strong, peer-reviewed evidence proving that the food adverts children see, influence the foods they choose and how much of it they eat. Junk food marketing in particular is linked with strong preference for junk food, more snacking and greater intake of junk food and lower intake of healthy food overall.
The advertising industry frequently quotes a figure attributing just 2% of children’s food choices to advertising. This figure is based on a small study that is over 15 years old. The academic evidence has moved on significantly since then.
- Online advertisers are not able to exclude children from advertising
Digital advertising has a range of sophisticated technology at its disposal. But crucially, none of it is able to reliably identify and exclude children from advertising campaigns. This is because children frequently register for social media using false ages or share devices with older siblings or parents. So advertisers use interest based targeting, which makes inferences about a user’s age based on the type of content they engage with online. But this is blunt tool, particularly when it comes to older children who have similar interests and online behaviours to over 16s. So, because advertisers aren’t able to effectively identify which users are children, restricting all advertising online is the best way to ensure that children aren’t exposed to and harmed by highly influential unhealthy food adverts.
- The ban will only apply to food and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt AND contribute to children’s excess calorie and sugar consumption.
The government uses an equation to assess whether food and drink products are ‘healthier’ or ‘less healthy’. This takes into account the amount of calories, saturated fat, sugar and salt a product contains, along with positive nutrients such as fibre and protein. Foods and drinks that are classified as ‘less healthy’ AND have also been identified by Public Health England as contributing excess sugar or calories to children’s diets are likely to be the only food and drinks the ban will apply to.
This means products like burgers, meat pizzas, ice cream, chocolate and crisps won’t be able to advertise online. It won’t affect staple products like cheese, olive oil or condiments like mustard or mayonnaise. It definitely won’t stop avocados being advertised. In fact, one aim of the policy is create space for healthier foods to be advertised – which is a good thing for everyone.
- Ending junk food advertising online will save money
The government have published an impact assessment which calculates the cost benefits of the policy, compared to the potential costs to businesses. This estimates the health benefits of the policy are equivalent to £2.9 billion (or 127,000 quality adjusted life years) along with an additional £62 million of NHS savings, £49 million social care savings plus £149 million of economic output. These figures are also likely to be an underestimate as they don’t account for the enormous potential health benefits to adults (you can read more about that here).
While the new restrictions will have a cost impact on the food and advertising industry, it can be mitigated by companies switching to advertise their healthier products or changing the recipes of their products to make them healthier. This will have a benefit on everyone’s health.