Q&A: What does an online HFSS ad ban mean?

Posted on: Friday 31 July 2020 | IAB UK

From what food and drink is caught by the ban to how it could impact you, and what happens next, we answer some of the most pressing HFSS-related questions

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What has the Government said? 

The Government has said that it will introduce a 9pm watershed on all ads for High Fat, Salt and Sugar (HFSS) food and drink products, online and on TV, by the end of 2022. However, it wants to go further online and will also be holding a consultation on implementing an outright ban of HFSS ads online instead of a watershed. 

What exactly is HFSS?

HFSS refers to food and drink products that are high in (saturated) fat, salt or sugar according to the Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling Model. Foods that score 4 or more, and drinks 1 or more, are classed as HFSS. Full details are available here.

Why is the Government making these changes?

The advertising bans are part of a wider drive from the Government to tackle the UK’s rising obesity rates. The Government has had various plans in the past to address obesity and has decided it needs to do more as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. The new ad measures are intended to  ‘shape the marketing to our children’, hence the 9pm advertising watershed. However, an outright online ad ban would evidently extend this to everyone. 

So does that mean a ban on all online ‘fast food’ ads? 

Yes (if they are for HFSS products), but it’s not limited to what people might typically consider to be ‘unhealthy’ food. Fast food such as pizza and burgers would be in scope, but also things such as soup, fruit juice and smoothies, crackers, rice cakes, bacon, pesto, mayonnaise and honey. Some of these might be able to be reformulated to be non-HFSS, but many can’t. It wouldn’t just be brand ads for products, it would also affect supermarket ads - such as for Christmas dinners -  and potentially marketing of shops, food outlets and takeaway services. 

What about brand ads, or ads for product ranges that include non-HFSS products?

It’s unclear. The existing CAP Code rules and guidance address these questions (here), but the Government is implementing its own rules and we don’t know how far they’ll extend or how closely they will reflect the CAP Code. It’s certainly possible that these ads could be in scope. We expect the Government to publish more details later in the year.

What is the ad industry’s reaction? 

Trade bodies across the ad industry have condemned the Government's proposed ad ban as “unwarranted” and “draconian”, and called for the Government to be led by the evidence, which doesn’t show that a ban would address obesity. Industry bodies including IAB UK, Advertising Association, ISBA, IPA, AOP, PPA and the NMA have sent a joint letter to the Prime Minister expressing these views and calling for a proportionate approach to the issue based on robust evidence. You can read IAB UK’s full statement, which was also sent to the Government, here

Is the IAB saying that online advertising doesn’t work?

No - but obesity rates aren’t an indicator of whether food and drink advertising is working. We have plenty of evidence to support the effectiveness of online advertising, and in the vast majority of cases, in a market like this, advertising is designed not to grow the market, but to grow brand share. Our point is that the Government hasn’t been able to demonstrate that going beyond the existing restrictions and banning HFSS advertising entirely  (for adults and children alike) is the right solution to such a complex and multifaceted issue as obesity. 

The Government says children are bombarded with HFSS ads - isn’t that a problem?

The facts don’t support that view. Recognising that children are at greater risk of ‘harm’, industry bodies (through the Committee of Advertising Practice - CAP) reviewed the evidence relating to the impact of HFSS ads on children. Subsequently, new rules were added to the CAP Code in 2017 for all non-broadcast media. These mean you can’t advertise or market HFSS products in children’s media or content; you can’t target child audiences in other media; and your ad or marketing content can’t appeal to children. As a result, the evidence suggests that children’s exposure to HFSS ads is low - AA research showed that under-16s see less than 0.5 seconds of online HFSS ads per day, per child, and ASA research and rulings show that breaches of the rules are rare and often a result of human error. 

What does the evidence show?

No evidence has been produced to show that an outright ban of HFSS ads online would be effective at reducing obesity rates. The Government's own Impact Assessment from 2019 calculated that a TV and online watershed would reduce children’s calorie intake by just 2.28 calories per day, per child. That’s less than half a Smartie. This falls to just 0.3 calories when looking at just an online watershed, while the evidence of any beneficial impact on adults was described by the Government as “inconclusive”. The existing restrictions on TV ads, that have been in place longer than online, show significantly reduced ad exposure yet there has been no reduction in child obesity rates. 

Wouldn’t it be better for measures to focus more on the root causes of obesity? What else is the Government doing?

Obesity is caused by multiple and interdependent factors and addressing it needs a carefully thought-out approach that focuses on measures that will make a real difference. An ad ban is not the solution. The Government’s strategy does include some other measures not related to advertising such as encouraging people to lose weight; proposals for mandatory calorie labelling on menus and alcohol products; banning ‘volume’ promotions (e.g. buy one, get one free) for HFSS products and restricting their placement in retail ‘stores’ (including online).

OK, but doesn’t the industry have a part to play in reducing obesity?

Yes, and that’s why we took action in 2017 to put in place additional restrictions. Children (under 16s) are protected wherever and whenever they are online. But an outright online ad ban is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Regulation should be proportionate to the likely ‘harm’ that will be caused. Banning advertising of any HFSS product online - including food products such as gravy, sandwiches and oatcakes - stands to have a big impact on the digital ecosystem without delivering any meaningful benefits. It could also mean that small businesses - over 60% of whom currently use digital advertising - can’t run search or classified ads or use social media for marketing. At a time of tentative economic recovery, the impact of the measures proposed needs to be weighed against the benefits - which are currently unproven.  

So it won’t just be online display advertising that’s banned?

While the details of the ban and what forms of online advertising it will encompass are yet to be confirmed, we expect that the Government will closely reflect the scope of the CAP Code and the ASA’s remit when it comes to online advertising. This includes search, social media posts, brands’ own websites, video on demand services, blogs and vlogs, ads on music streaming services and listings on third-party retail platforms such as Deliveroo and UberEats. Video on demand currently falls under broadcast regulation, but we don’t yet know how it will be treated under the new restrictions.

Are there any changes that apply right now? What about in-store promotions?

Nothing has changed yet - the announcement was about measures the Government plans to bring in, but the new bans on advertising and on promotions aren’t currently in place. For now, the existing CAP/BCAP Code restrictions on HFSS advertising/marketing continue to apply.

Isn’t a watershed a broadcast measure? Why is it being applied online?

A watershed is a broadcast solution, using time as a proxy for who is viewing the content. It doesn’t make sense in digital, and doesn’t reflect how digital targeting and exclusion works. We made this clear in our consultation response last year, and in meetings with the Government, and will continue to do so. It’s clear, though, that the Government has decided it needs to go further than the current rules, so we also need to look at what alternatives we can propose, based on digital capabilities, that achieve the same goal.

Is the ban definite, and when will it come into effect?

It’s unlikely that the Government will row back from some form of ad ban. However, we are working to identify alternatives that are more proportionate and suited to digital. Primary legislation is needed to implement a statutory ban (whether a watershed or a complete ban) online, and it’s likely that more precise timings will be confirmed as part of that process. We expect the Government to publish more details later in the year. 

What is the IAB doing now?

We ran a member forum on 5 August which you can watch back or read a summary of here to bring members up to speed on the proposals. We’re now talking to members, and to other trade bodies, about how we respond to the Government’s announcement. We’ll be considering the best approach to take, what evidence we might need, and what proposals we could put forward as an alternative to a watershed or a complete ban. 

Is the IAB working with other trade bodies on this?

Yes. We are part of a group organised by the Advertising Association - including ISBA, the IPA and food and drink manufacturers - that is working together to respond to these proposals. We believe the best approach is one that is developed collaboratively and that all parts of the digital advertising industry can support.

We expect the Government to release a more detailed proposal on the ban later in the year. Stay engaged with the IAB for updates. 

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