Sunday 20 January 2019

John McGee: 'Weighty issues face marketers in the war for wellness'

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan unilaterally declared that he was planning to ban all junk food advertising on Transport for London’s out-of-home network
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan unilaterally declared that he was planning to ban all junk food advertising on Transport for London’s out-of-home network

John McGee

Sadiq Khan likes the occasional spat. The former lawyer turned Labour politician, and now Mayor of London, has shown on numerous occasions that he is not afraid to take on the establishment when he thinks Londoners might be getting a raw deal.

Two weeks ago, however, Khan opened a veritable Pandora's Box when he unilaterally declared that he was planning to ban all junk food advertising on the Transport for London (TfL) network's out-of-home (OOH) network starting from next February.

The move - aimed at curbing the growing rates of child obesity in the greater London area - covers all ads for food and non-alcoholic drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

Beginning on February 25, the restrictions will come into force on all TfL's properties across London, including both the London Underground and Overground stations, Tramlink, Docklands Light Railway and Victoria Coach Station.

For a city the size of London, that's a lot of billboards, T-sides, bus-shelters and digital signage in TfL's network of over 400 stations which support an estimated 30m journeys a day.

When the deal to award the sales contract for all of TfL's OOH inventory to Exterion Media was announced back in 2016, it was billed as the biggest OOH contract in the world, worth an estimated £1.1bn a year to TfL and formed a big chunk of its overall commercial revenues which are in excess of £3bn a year.

Not surprisingly, the UK's advertising and marketing industry - or that part of it involved in the food and drink sector - has been up in arms ever since. While banning junk food advertising from TfL's network could cost it up to £35m in lost advertising revenues, at stake is a much wider battle that has been simmering away in the background between the manufacturers of food and drink in one corner and policy makers, vociferous health lobbies and consumer advocates in the other.

It's an age-old battle which is being fought on different fronts but the narrative that weaves them together is the contention that the marketing and advertising industry is to blame for just about everything that is wrong about society today. From the growing levels of obesity and binge drinking right through the dopamine-fuelled parallel universe that is social media, advertising and marketing is to blame.

Obesity, of course, is a challenge that is not just confined to Londoners.

Here in Ireland, the debate has been simmering quietly in the background for a number of years and much of the current thinking around it flows from the Government's 2016 policy document 'A Healthy Weight for Ireland - Obesity Policy and Action Plan, 2016 - 2025' which was introduced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he was Minister for Health.

From a marketing and advertising perspective, the Government has so far shied away from drastic measures like those proposed by Sadiq Khan, preferring instead a voluntary code covering all HFSS product advertising to which all stakeholders in the industry would adhere to.

The Government announced that it was going to introduce voluntary codes back in February but, so far, it hasn't revealed its hand and nobody knows how they will be policed.

Not surprisingly, this has caused a degree of concern among food and drink firms and apoplexy among the health lobby, parts of which believes that statutory measures are warranted.

The Government has already been down this road with the Public Health (Alcohol) Act and coming so soon after the introduction of a sugar tax, it may not have the appetite for another endless round of consultation and lobbying.

The industry has also welcomed to the introduction of a voluntary code not just because it fears regulation, but possibly because it genuinely believes that it can have a role to play in helping reverse the obesity epidemic.

In the not-so-distant future, the smarter brands will see this as an opportunity, not a threat. The growth of the so-called wellness industry shows that consumers are increasingly moving towards healthier food products and indeed healthier lifestyles. Well, it's a start.

But let's be clear about something: there are other issues like education, better product labelling, portion control, better parenting, pricing and a number of socio-economic factors at play too. And while marketing does have a responsible role to play, let's not get carried away and blame it for all of society's problems.

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