In June 2018, the UK Government announced its ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, and proposed restrictions on junk food ads before 9pm on TV and online.

One year on, and ahead of the Government’s decision on what to do next, Dan Parker, advertiser turned campaigner and founder of Living Loud, reveals why restrictions on junk food advertising are important.

Photo of Dan Parker.

Dan Parker is a former ad exec turned campaigner.

I worked in advertising for about 20 years. As a creative director, and eventually owner of my own agency, I would come up with ideas for adverts for my clients – who were mostly junk food brands.

Then, in 2014, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. It made me step outside of my advertising bubble. And as I learned how to manage my condition, I also learned about the obesity crisis.

My dad had a long and miserable death because he was obese and had type 2 diabetes, among other things. So did my aunt, my grandfather – anyone as far back as we could remember. And by this point, I had my own child and didn’t want that for him.

I realised I had dedicated a lot of time and energy trying to get people to eat another packet of crisps. I was part of the problem.

Tricks of the trade

Advertising is not just about getting you to buy something. An awful lot of advertising is about planting the seeds over a long time, to make a product cool or to associate it with a particular emotion.

When people make decisions about food, it’s often an irrational, emotional decision rather than a logical one. And advertisers understand and play on this, particularly when it comes to children.

Even though kids don’t always have their own purchasing power, they do have ‘pester power’. As a parent, I get pestered every day!

When marketing to children, advertisers essentially use a two-pronged attack. They create an environment that will make a child pester their parents for a product, but also make the parent feel sufficiently assured to purchase the product.

Kids don’t really care about where food comes from or its nutritional value, they care if it’s fun. Food isn’t inherently fun, so as an advertiser you need to find a way to make your product desirable. You might stick a cartoon character on the packet, give away a toy with it or include a footballer in the advert.

You’ve then got to make sure the parent puts that item in their shopping basket. When I worked in the advertising industry we were constantly asking, “what in this advert will pacify mum?” We would offer a price discount or a bigger box or put something reassuring on the box, like a picture of a strawberry.

Or we’d make the food look healthier in the advert.

Picture an advert for a burger compared to what the burger looks like when you actually buy it – there’s an abundance of lettuce tumbling out in the photo. These messages are designed to make you think “oh, it’s got lettuce in, it’s fine”.

The 9pm watershed is simple, but it needs to be part of a broader package

We shouldn’t be advertising junk food to children. And the consumer goods industry is always going to out-market public health – it has more money, takes more risks and, fundamentally, it has a more desirable product to sell. We can’t outrun these organisations, so we need to think about how we can limit their worst excesses.

What I like about a 9pm watershed on junk food marketing is that it’s reasonably simple. It puts junk food into the same bracket as other content we believe to be a bad influence on our children, like violence and swearing.

And ultimately, it gives control back to the parents. It’s close to impossible to monitor what our kids see online, but if we know that before 9pm is safe time then we can worry a little less.

But a watershed won’t work on its own – it must be part of a broader package.

The way media is consumed has changed

I’ve heard people say the 9pm watershed is unnecessary because kids are being exposed to less junk food marketing, but that’s fundamentally untrue. It’s simply migrated to evening family TV – in just one episode of Britain’s Got Talent there are more junk food adverts than the ad industry claims kids see in a week.

And it’s not just TV we need to worry about. You have celebrities making sponsored posts online, competitions on social media and in-play adverts for mobile and videogames.

None of this is truly factored into the current rules. We’re looking at the 2019 media landscape through the lens of the early noughties and walking away with a false picture. If you compare it to smoking, it took us 50 years to fully regulate against advertising – and unless we take urgent action there is a danger we will end up in the same situation for junk food.

It’s up to Government to define the rules

Most of us would like for our children to grow up free from the influence of things that do them harm, and for food choices to genuinely sit with the parent. But to have true parental responsibility, there has to be a degree on honesty and transparency. Right now, too much power sits with industry.

Some people have said these new rules will have a negative impact on the advertising industry. But I’ve spoken to people who work in advertising about it, and most will say they’re happy to work within whatever boundaries as long as the rules are clear.

When I was a creative director, I used to run each new idea by a team of lawyers who would warn me of the rules I might be breaking. We’d then refine it until it pushed right up to the edge. Advertising agencies, and to a great extent their clients, would say that it’s not their job to define the moral code behind regulations. And they can only compete on an even playing field defined by regulations.

It’s up to Government to define the rules. And the advertising industry will innovate again, no matter what rules they’re given. They will always come back strong.

Dan Parker