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

Posted on: Tuesday 17 November 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. Last updated, November 2020.

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What has the Government said? 
The Government has said that it will introduce a 9pm watershed on 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 has held a six-week consultation on how it can implement an outright ban of HFSS ads online instead of a watershed. This closed on 22 December 2020. IAB UK submitted a joint response with ISBA (representing British advertisers) and the IPA (representing the UK’s advertising, media and marketing communications agencies). Read it here


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. For the purpose of this proposal, the ban applies to HFSS products that are in the scope of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) or Public Health England's (PHE's) Sugar and Calorie Reduction Programmes (the latter was updated in September 2020). Staples such as oil, butter and cheese are exempt.


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 TV 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 - see above), but it’s not limited to what people might typically consider to be ‘unhealthy’ food. The categories that are in scope are broad, and include not only ‘fast foods’ such as pizza and burgers, but also things such as sandwiches and yogurt. 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 and food outlets. Ads with a ‘principal purpose of facilitating an online sale are exempt from the ban, as are B2B communications and ‘factual claims’ about products and services.


What about brand ads, or ads for product ranges that include non-HFSS products?
This is not clear yet. The consultation refers to ads that “have the effect of promoting identifiable HFSS products” but that has not been defined in more detail. Separately from the ban, the consultation proposes implementing specific age restrictions for social media accounts of “any advertisers which sell or promote an identifiable HFSS product or which operate a brand considered by the regulator to be synonymous with HFSS products”.  


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 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.

Following the launch of the Government’s consultation on how to implement a total ban online in November 2020, IAB UK issued a joint statement with the Advertising Association, ISBA and the IPA, plus run an editorial piece in The Times that calls on the Government to base their decision on evidenced policies that deliver the greatest benefit for the least economic cost. As well as meetings with Government ministers and the Prime Minister’s advisors, we have written jointly with the AA, ISBA and the IPA to backbench MPs highlighting our concerns.

Following this, IAB UK, ISBA and the IPA jointly responded to the Government’s consultation in December 2020. This unprecedented joint response reflects the potential existential impact of the Government’s proposal across the advertising industry. 

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 ‘Evidence Note’ accompanying the 2020 consultation calculates that an online ban would reduce children’s calorie intake by just 2.8 calories per day, per child (and that assumes that children seeing even fewer ads would lead to a direct reduction in consuming HFSS products). The evidence of any beneficial impact on adults continues to be described by the Government as “not conclusive”. 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 categories  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 paid 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?

No. The Government is proposing that the ban applies to “all online marketing communications that are either intended or likely to come to the attention of UK consumers and which have the effect of promoting identifiable HFSS products” (unless they are business-to-business communications, or ‘factual claims’).  So that includes all paid for advertising online (such as search and social, video, in-game and in-app, etc.), plus brands’ own websites and social media content. If someone has opted in to receive communications, e.g. email/SMS then this would be exempt from the restrictions. The specific details are yet to be confirmed though. For example, whether ads in digital audio or podcasts are included, and precise definitions of types of ads and content that are in scope, or exempt.


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.


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, and the proposal is for the ban (and a TV watershed) to come into effect by the end of 2022. Primary legislation is needed to implement a statutory ban online. The Government has said it will formally publish its response to both the 2019 and 2020 consultations together, and we would expect them to provide more details about legislative proposals, process and timing as part of that. 


What is the IAB doing now?
Having held a number of events to brief IAB members both when the proposal was first announced, and during the consultation period, we collated member views to feed into our response to the Government’s consultation. We are continuing to engage with the Government and politicians to make our concerns about the proposals heard.


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, and a joint response to the Government’s consultation was submitted from the IAB, ISBA, the IPA. We believe the best approach is one that is developed collaboratively and that all parts of the digital advertising industry can support. The Government has said it will be responding to the consultation, together with its response to its 2019 consultation on implementing a 9pm watershed on TV and online, which we expect will be in Spring 2021.

If you have any questions about the Government’s HFSS proposals, or any views you would like to feed into the IAB to shape its response, please get in touch. Members of the IAB’s Regulatory Affairs & Public Policy Advisory Group receive regular updates containing all key developments on the HFSS proposals and other relevant matters. Contact us if you would like to be added to the Advisory Group, and stay engaged with the IAB for updates.

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