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HFSS ad ban: ‘Pro-Tech’ Government Dismissing Tech Solutions

HFSS ad ban: ‘Pro-Tech’ Government Dismissing Tech Solutions
Jon Mew, CEO

Jon Mew, CEO | IAB UK

3 min read Partner content

The self-proclaimed “unashamedly pro-tech” Government continues to pursue a draconian online advertising ban that harks back to an analogue era

Later today, the Government’s Health and Care Bill is due to get its second reading in the House of Lords, having already passed through the Commons. While much attention is being paid to the social care cap included in the Bill, less is being given to the ban of online adverts for foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) that the Government is introducing.

The Government wants to reduce childhood obesity rates in the UK and, despite its own evidence suggesting this will not be achieved by bluntly banning paid-for adverts for HFSS products, it is pushing ahead with the plans that will expose UK industry to a projected £1 billion hit. Meanwhile, a more targeted, industry-led solution is being dismissed.

The digital advertising industry recognises that childhood obesity is a critical issue that needs to be addressed, and is committed to playing its part to do this. However, in order to genuinely and effectively achieve progress on this vital issue, the solution needs to be rooted in sound evidence. The HFSS online ad ban is not.

In fact, the Government's own analysis shows that the ban will reduce children’s calorie intake by a minuscule 2.84 calories a day. Weigh that up against the huge economic impact that the ban will have, not to mention stifling innovation and competition within one of the UK’s most dynamic and entrepreneurial sectors. A ban just doesn’t stack up.

The digital advertising industry recognises that childhood obesity is a critical issue that needs to be addressed, and is committed to playing its part to do this.

It’s for this reason that we at IAB UK, together with our trade body partners at ISBA and the IPA, have put forward an alternative solution that will achieve what the Government wants - further limiting children’s already limited exposure to HFSS ads online - without the need for ineffective and punitive state intervention and without inflicting unnecessary damage on the advertising, media and hospitality industries.

Our solution draws on existing, proven digital targeting technologies to further restrict HFSS ads from being seen by children, while still allowing advertising for perfectly legal food and drink products to reach adults. It would increase restrictions for all paid-for HFSS ads online, requiring advertisers to demonstrate they have applied robust filters to exclude children’s media and content. It would evaluate ad campaigns to continually improve targeting approaches. And it would include a renewed enforcement push by the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry regulator.

This is not only a proportionate and nuanced response; it also harnesses the technological capabilities of digital advertising in the best possible way to achieve exactly what the Government wants. Despite this, our “unashamedly pro-tech” Government continues to pursue a draconian ad ban that harks back to an analogue era. 

While industry efforts have resulted in some important changes to the ban - such as the Government accepting that it should consult on any planned changes to the criteria of what constitutes an HFSS product - these small concessions don’t go far enough. If policymakers genuinely want to achieve their goal, it’s time to abandon this tokenistic ad ban and engage with the industry’s forward-thinking solution. 

We hope peers will raise this subject with Ministers as the Bill progresses through the House of Lords. As it stands, the HFSS online ad ban is an analogue answer to a digital question, creating the dangerous illusion that progress is being made on an issue that deserves so much more than hollow actions that won’t deliver.

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