The clamour in the UK for more controls on the advertising of food and drink to children has grown steadily louder as the problem of childhood obesity has escalated. Rosemary Duff, director of SMRC Childwise, a market researcher and strategic consultancy specialising in children, examines the regulatory options for TV advertising currently being considered by UK media regulator Ofcom.

Manufacturers looking to market successfully to children are facing a seemingly ever-increasing series of obstacles and pitfalls, with growing concerns about health and obesity changing consumer behaviour and attitudes, and less tolerance of products seen to be unhealthy.

The restriction of junk food advertising to children, and in particular advertising on TV, has assumed central prominence in the healthy eating campaign, as an obvious, easy and victim-free way to achieve results, in comparison with other potentially more significant factors, such as exercise, family eating habits and the cost of healthier foods, which are harder to address.

In March, UK media regulator Ofcom launched its consultation on advertising food and drink to children, proposing a set of rules, drawn up by the Broadcasting Committee of Advertising Practice, to control the content of advertising.

The proposals on content include provision that celebrities and licensed characters must not be used in food and drink adverts targeted directly at children under ten years of age, and promotional offers in food and drink adverts must not be targeted at children aged under 10.

In addition, Ofcom set out three options designed to limit children's exposure to advertising. The first would involve timing restrictions on specific food and drink products. No HFSS (high in fat, sugar and salt) product advertising could be shown in children's programming or other TV shows that particularly appeal to children up to nine years, and such brands would also be barred from sponsoring these programmes.

A second option would see timing restrictions on all food and drink products. No food or drink advertising would be permitted in children's programming or shows that particularly appeal to children up to nine years of age, apart from healthy eating campaigns supported or endorsed by the Government. This would also extend to sponsorship of such programmes.

Because of the difficulties of defining junk food, it may well be that restrictions covering all food and drink advertising on TV directed towards young children will be preferred, rather than restrictions only on foods defined as high in fat, salt and sugar.

The third proposal is for volume-based restrictions on all food and drink products, with food and drink advertising and sponsorship limited at times when children are most likely to be watching TV, with a limit of 30 seconds per hour at peak child viewing time, 60 seconds per hour at family viewing time, and a complete ban during pre-school children's programmes.

The food and drink industry was also invited to propose an alternative package that would achieve broad support and meet the desired objectives. The industry's Better Balance proposals recommend an end to the use of cartoon characters, celebrities and collectibles in advertising directly targeted at children; a ban on all branded food and drink advertising during children's programming on terrestrial TV; and a limit of 30 seconds an hour for food and drink advertising on dedicated children's channels.

The Better Balance proposals cover all food and drink advertising, rather than just HFSS products, because the industry feels that the nutrient profiling model put forward by the UK Foods Standards Agency to define HFSS is neither accurate nor workable.

Ofcom was originally due to announce its final recommendation in October, but the introduction of this fourth option may delay this until the end of the year. Rules on content would take effect immediately, although this would not affect campaigns already under development, with a six-month grace period planned. Rules on timings or volumes would come into force on 1 January 2007, with restrictions phased in over three years, in recognition of the impact on children's channels.

Interestingly, the reforms are coming as children's TV viewing is actually declining, in favour of the Internet. According to Childwise's Trends Report 2006, children aged five to 16 claim to watch an average of 2.5 hours of television per day, down from 3.0 hours in 2001. Meanwhile, the proportion of seven- to 16-year-olds with home Internet access has now reached 74%, up from 54% in 2001.

With many of the most popular websites for children linked to TV, such as CBBC, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, there are concerns that marketing activity will migrate from TV to the Internet, through activities such as branded games and downloads, as well as advertising. With the Internet likely to play an increasingly significant role in promotion, it is important that communications through this medium are scrutinised to the same standards as TV.

The Food and Drink Advertising and Promotion Forum is looking at the role of other broadcast and non-broadcast media in this context. New Media is one of the areas under examination, together with radio, press, cinema, sponsorship, packaging and point of sale activity.

The reform of TV advertising regulations relating to children coming into effect in the UK during the next 12 months can be seen alongside legislation and self-regulation already in place in other European countries where there is a varied regulatory environment. 

Sweden and Norway have had bans on all advertising during children's programmes, and on advertising targeted at under-12s, since 1991, while Ireland introduced a ban on TV ads for sweets and fastfood in 2005, and also prohibits the use of celebrities and sports stars to promote junk food to children.

In Greece, advertising bans for children are restricted to toys, while the Portuguese Advertisers' Association (APAN) introduced a self-regulatory code of practice for commercial communications to children, covering traditional media (TV and press), cinema, Internet, video games and telephone communications, in September 2005. A self-regulatory code on food advertising to children also came into force in Spain in September 2005. In France, a mandatory display of nutritional warnings on all advertising of processed foods and sugary drinks came into force in February 2006.

In January, the Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA) agreed a voluntary ban on advertising to children under 12, and also undertook to cease direct commercial activity in primary schools, and to offer more low-calorie drinks.

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Source: Soft Drinks International
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