Restricting advertising of unhealthy foods is one policy to deal with rising rates of obesity and diet-related disease. But do advertising restrictions help tackle childhood obesity?

By Rebekah Stroud, Institute for Fiscal Studies

Since 2007, food and drink products that are high in fat, sugar or salt have been banned from being advertised during television programmes that are aimed at children. There has recently been discussion about whether these restrictions should be extended to ban advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt during all television broadcasting before the 9pm watershed.

Restricting advertising is one of many policies that have been either introduced or discussed as a way to deal with rising rates of obesity and diet-related disease. Research by Public Health England finds that one in three children are overweight or obese by the time that they leave primary school, and obesity prevalence is particularly high in the most deprived parts of the country. Obesity is associated with a number of poor health outcomes such as diabetes, heart disease and cancers. The fact that some of these costs are borne by wider society (eg, through an increased burden on the NHS), and that people may not fully take into account the future costs of poor diet, provides a rationale for government intervention.

There is concern that exposure to advertising of unhealthy food and drinks leads individuals to over-consume such products, and that advertising has a particularly large influence on children who are less able to discern the persuasive intent of advertising. The hope is that by restricting advertising of these products, consumption of unhealthy foods will fall.

Children still see a large amount of television advertising for unhealthy food and drinks, despite the ban on advertising unhealthy foods during children’s programming. Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies studied the amount of advertising that children saw for different food and drink at various times of the day. The figure below left shows how the amount of advertising that children saw for healthy and less healthy products or brands varied throughout the day, with the bar at 9pm indicating the watershed. Fifty per cent of the television advertising of food and drink that children saw was for less healthy products or brands – 39% of this was for food and drinks products that are high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS), and a further 11% was for restaurants and bars, most of which was for fast food restaurants such as McDonalds.

The reason that children are still able to see this much advertising for less healthy food and drink products is that the current restrictions apply only to ‘children’s television’, which is defined as television on children’s channels or programmes where children make up at least 25% of the audience. This definition excludes some of the most popular shows among children, such as Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor. Indeed, despite attracting far more young viewers than Spongebob Squarepants, Horrid Henry or Peppa Pig (three of the top ‘children’s television’ shows in 2015), shows such as Britain’s Got Talent and X Factor are not subject to existing restrictions as they also attract a large number of adult viewers, meaning that the share of the audience made up by children was 13% for Britain’s Got Talent and 12% for X Factor in 2015.

This has led to calls from health campaigners and leaders of all the main opposition parties for a ban on all television advertising of foods and drinks that are high in fat, sugar and salt prior to the 9pm watershed. As can be seen in the figure below, in 2015 70% of the television advertising that children saw for foods and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar and for restaurants and bars was shown before the 9pm watershed, and therefore could have been affected had restrictions applied before the watershed.

Bar chart: Children’s exposure to advertising of food and drinks products by hour
of day and advert type

The effectiveness of advertising restrictions ultimately depends on how food and drink companies respond to these restrictions, how consumers respond to a reduction in the amount of advertising they see, and how the regulations are enforced.

Food and drink companies might respond in a number of ways. For example, restrictions on advertising might encourage companies to reformulate their products so that they are no longer high in fat, sugar and salt, and can therefore still be advertised. Alternatively, food and drink companies might respond by shifting the advertising they would have placed in pre-watershed slots to after the 9pm watershed, or to other mediums such as internet advertising, which may mean the fall in total advertising exposure of children is less than anticipated. Manufacturers and retailers may also change the prices of their products, which will affect the overall impact of the policy.

The response of consumers to seeing less advertising of unhealthy food and drink is also an important factor in determining the effect of extending restrictions. For example, if advertising leads consumers to switch between brands of a similar nutritional composition (eg, buying a KitKat rather than a Crunchie), restricting advertising would have a limited effect on diet quality. In contrast, if exposure to advertising leads people to buy a KitKat when they otherwise would have bought an apple (or nothing at all), then reducing advertising exposure is more likely to improve diet quality. Estimating the relative importance of these two effects is difficult, but is an important topic for future research.

The fact that an advert for one product may affect demand for similar products is one reason why the design of regulations to prohibit the advertising of unhealthy foods can be complex. Currently, the regulation states that an advert should not be permitted during children’s television if it ‘has the effect of promoting an HFSS product’. A recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency determined that Coco Pops Granola (a non-HFSS product) could not be advertised during children’s television because it had the effect of simultaneously promoting the original Coco Pops Cereal (a HFSS product). On the other hand, McDonald’s is permitted to run adverts during children’s television, as long as they advertise non-HFSS products (eg, carrots). This highlights the challenge of designing regulations aimed at restricting exposure to unhealthy food and drink adverts.

Children see a lot of television advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks during television that is not covered by current regulations. Extending regulations is just one of many possible policy responses to the growing problem of childhood obesity. The extent to which it will be successful depends crucially on how people change what they buy and eat. Ultimately, it is likely that a broad package of measures will be necessary to deal with escalating costs of a less healthy population.