Handle junk food ads with kid gloves

TV's loss could be online's gain as far as junk food advertising goes. But have food brands targeting under-16s become too much of a poisoned chalice - even for online? James Livesley reports.

Along with direct marketing, industry observers predict that online will be the big beneficiary of new curbs placed on the advertising of junk food to the under-16s. Yet, having only recently won a reprieve from the EU on the inclusion of the internet with broadcast media on content regulation, will it be wise for the online industry to take advantage of TV's woes on junkfood advertising?

Last week, WPP's Group M reported that online advertising is set to grow 36% next year and that FMCG's share of online spend will jump from 5% to 13%. This share would increase should junk-food advertisers move much of their TV spend online.

The Ofcom report on high fat, salt and sugar advertising to children did not make any mention of online advertising, but then the regulator does not have, and is not seeking a remit to regulate the internet.

In fact, Ofcom has for the past year been campaigning against taking on this regulatory responsibility after the European Commission tried to impose the same regulation on TV for all new media across EU member states.

Ofcom and the Department of Media, Culture and Sport's case is that this would increase regulation to an unmanageable and costly level, inhibiting entrepreneurship.

Yet, overtly exploiting Ofcom's curbs on junk-food advertising on TV could undermine Ofcom's case and put the internet back in the regulatory spotlight.

Regulation differences

With convergence, there is cross-over between broadcast and digital media, not least in the areas of IPTV and video-on-demand.

As broadcasters are increasingly supplying VOD and IPTV content over the internet, shouldn't the same rules apply to television, i.e. that programming with a high proportion of under-16 viewers should not have HFSS advertising around it and that celebrities and cartoons, promotional gifts and health or nutrition claims should not be used to target primary school-aged children?

According to an Ofcom spokesman, the difference in regulation depends on the method of delivery, as there are "different flavours" of video-on-demand. A TV in a living room with an IPTV connection should be regulated in the same way, but content such as "catch-up clips viewed on a laptop will not be caught in the same way" by the Ofcom report.

He adds: "A large media owner will follow the same injunctions for its content. It is about the spirit and not the letter (of the law)."

The future of food brands' ability to use online may now also come into the hands of the Advertising Standards Authority. This independent body, which covers online, financed by the advertising industry to police the rules laid down in its advertising codes, is now taking the Ofcom ruling into consideration through its Committee of Advertising Practice.

Whether and how much HFSS ads will move online is open to debate. Guy Phillipson, chief executive of the Internet Advertising Bureau, says it is a decision for the food manufacturers: "But do they want to seen as getting under the wire by launching large campaigns online? Also, it is an issue for all media owners, do they want to take this food advertising and take criticism for it?"

Sian Croxon, partner at law firm DLA Piper, who specialises in media and regulatory issues, agrees. "I'm sure they (brands) will go there, but they will have to go there very carefully. They will not want to be seen to be targeting children and have scorn poured on them, it would be very bad for the brand."

From the media owner side, Giles Ivey, sales director at AOL, thinks food advertising will grow online. "I'm not sure it will affect the stuff we advertise, as we tend to vet it and won't show our audience a message if we think it is inappropriate."

Alternative solutions

Among agencies the word seems to be for FMCG brands to start boxing clever. Adam Smith, Group M's futures director, says it is difficult at this stage to judge how much food advertising will move online, adding that it will be a creative challenge. "It is a different proposition, there are a lot more distractions than TV."

Yet, Zed Media managing director Greg Grimmer believes advertisers should seize whatever alternatives there are and believes online is a very good playground for advertisers to exploit. "But FMCG advertisers have to move swiftly and take the opportunity before that avenue shuts down."

And the avenue may be shut down soon. With the Government promising to review the effects of the junk food issue within a year, other media, if they act irresponsibly, are sure to be faced with similar restrictions.

Leader, page 24.

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