‘High Fat Sugar and Salt’ ad ban creates new earned-media opportunities for brands

Back in June there was an audible gasp in the food sector when the Government decided to ban online advertising of treats, or High Fat Sugar and Salt (HFSS) products, to give them their official title.

The ad ban has created an opporitnuity for earned-media specialists, argues Neil Bayley
The ad ban has created an opporitnuity for earned-media specialists, argues Neil Bayley

The online advertising ban and a 9pm TV watershed will be introduced at the end of 2022 as part of the Government’s Obesity Strategy.

The ban applies to pretty much all paid-for online product advertising. Brand advertising isn’t included, so long as it does not include HFSS products.

With digital at the sharp end of marketing, this is a major challenge. Industry associations have been crying foul, while marketers scratch their heads to understand how they adapt. The impact of lost sales runs into hundreds of millions of pounds and that will have a wider economic impact.

The ban reflects the fact we’ve reached a tipping point in the way HFSS products are viewed and the extent to which Britain recognises its obesity challenge. We love our treats, but we need to consume them in a more sensible way.

As we emerge from COVID-19, it’s clear the impact of the pandemic has been exacerbated by high rates of obesity and ill-health caused by poor diet. Boris Johnson experienced the risks first-hand.

For me, there are clear reasons why the food industry didn’t succeed in arguing for voluntary action over regulation.

First, a successful alliance between health campaigners and medical professionals outgunned their rational messaging. Then there was the fact that arguments around better targeting of ads to protect vulnerable groups wasn’t seen as a reliable solution.

Perhaps most important of all, the Government didn’t feel the food industry could be trusted to act in a responsible way. Of course, there are brands that have reformulated and nudged consumers towards healthier habits, but a greater number have put indulgent foods at the forefront of their marketing. The line between occasional treats and daily diet has become blurred.

Where do food brands go from here?

It’s important to recognise that owned and earned channels are not restricted in the same way as paid promotion. There’s a real opportunity to grow engaged communities in owned social media. Smart, creative PR will also play an increasingly important role in helping brands cut through to audiences.

There are also real opportunities around brand campaigning. After all, while there are plenty of holes in the logic applied by the Government in proposing the online ad ban, they were forced to act in the absence of any credible moves by industry to help tackle obesity.

Food brands know consumers better than government ever could. So they can play a helpful role in improving understanding, promoting healthier choices and nudging behaviours.

The more enlightened already see this as part of their journey towards sustainability. It’s time for the whole sector to be more active in demonstrating the part it can play. That’ll be worth a treat or two.

Neil Bayley is managing director, Business & Corporate, at Good Relations

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