Adland Is Shooting Itself In The Foot With 'Minimal Impact' Defence On Kids And Junk Food

Is claiming to have little effect the best defence the advertising industry can offer in the junk food and children debate? It seems an odd defence, doesn't it?

You can have all the rules you like, but advertising plays a very minor role, anyway. That was adland's response to new rules announced today that come into effect next summer, which will not only see junk food ads banned from children's shows -- as they already are -- but also from social media and Web sites that are primarily targetting children.

It was the defence of the Advertising Association this morning in Campaign -- "Regulation is important but we also know the effects of advertising are relatively small." A very similar line was trotted out by an executive this morning on the BBC News. Since rules were tightened, the adland representative elaborated, children's exposure to junk food advertising has been halved, yet it has had very little impact on the problem.

So the line taken is industry-wide, or at least it seems to be pretty constant. Yes, we take on board that today's children's television ban has to be extended online, but don't expect much to happen because it hasn't happened yet in the past handful of years of tighter regulation. Put simply: you can do what you like -- advertising has a pretty minimal impact.

I'm still shaking my head in disbelief at this line. If i were ad industry executives I'd be saying something along the lines of accepting the new rules being extended to social media, pointing out the importance of children being treated in the same way whether they are watching tv or their increasingly preferred channel, online. The rules are coming in, whatever you say, so you might as well take it on the chin and act like the authorities are making a real impact.

By going the opposite route, it really is like shooting oneself in the foot. I'm sure a lot of advertisers would be very alarmed by hearing adland claim that their campaigns have very little impact on children. Does the same apply to adults too? If you're not influencing behaviour, why should brands be signing over millions of pounds worth of budget each year to boost awareness and sales?

It becomes even more odd when you consider that this is almost certainly about adland trying to preserve junk food advertising on prime-time adult channels, against shows like "The X Factor." This is what they are desperate to protect, and the ban on children's channels has seen an exodus of budget to the big-hitting family shows, which advertisers know will have the kids and adults on the same couch. 

By saying you only have "minimal impact," however, is that going to fill advertisers with confidence? If that's all you've got to bring to the party, they might as well just keep some budget back, surely.

1 comment about "Adland Is Shooting Itself In The Foot With 'Minimal Impact' Defence On Kids And Junk Food".
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  1. Ian Barber from Advertising Association, December 9, 2016 at 5:09 a.m.

    Hi Sean - interesting piece and actually, I dont think the positon we're taking is so far removed from the one you suggest...

    Our full statement to Campaign was: 

    “These new rules reflect changing media habits and reinforce a regime which has already greatly reduced the advertising kids see for sugary, fatty foods.  Regulation is important but we also know the effects of advertising are relatively small, so whether it’s supporting parents with healthier choices, improving education or getting more people, more active, let’s now grab the opportunity to put our collective energy into tackling the big drivers of obesity.”

    The point about the size of effect is important though.  Advertisers - who we represent as well as agencies and media owners - aren't alarmed because a) most of them are actively trying NOT to target children and b) their advertising (mostly) is deployed to influence brand awareness and preference, not overall consumption or diet.  

    It's a very old argument - perhaps because it's true - that advertising's primary effect in mature markets is competitive i.e. to shape people choices between brands.  So of course kids are influenced and have favourite brands, but the evidence strongly suggests that the impact on the overall family diet is marginal.

    These are big, complicated questions about advertising's role and effect - and as luck would have it, we've recently asked some of the industry's best thinkers to try and answer them. Check out

    Sorry for the shameless plug, but then we are the Advertising Association...

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