FOOD & DRINK CAMPAIGN: Which? battles against junk food adverts

The UK is facing a childhood obesity epidemic with the Government predicting that seven out of ten girls and half of boys will be obese or overweight by 2050.

Campaign: Junk food marketing to kids
Client: Which?
PR team: In-house
Timescale: January - April 2008
Budget: £5,000

Consumer rights group Which? puts much of the blame on 'irresponsible' marketing by the food industry and has long campaigned for curbs on the way unhealthy foods are promoted to children. MP Nigel Griffiths introduced a private members' bill last year calling for restrictions such as a pre-9pm watershed ban on junk food advertising. Which? launched a campaign surrounding the bill's second reading in April.

To persuade MPs to attend the second reading of Griffiths' Food Products (Marketing to Children) Bill as well as sign an early day motion on the issue. To raise awareness among MPs and families about the Which? campaign.

Mums, as families' main food buyer, were a key target group, so the in-house PR team at Which? came up with the idea of producing a shopping bag branded with the phrase 'Junk food promotion to kids is not my bag'. The team felt this bag, which lasts for a number of years, would be particularly popular as it coincided with a supermarket drive to cut down on plastic bag use.

Of the 10,000 bags produced, many were offered through online giveaways at websites Prima and forparentsby as well as in the Mail on Sunday. A photo shoot at a supermarket in Hertfordshire showed Which? staff giving away the bags. They were also given away to celebrities including Louise Redknapp.

Which? wrote letters for regional newspaper publication urging readers to write to their local MPs asking them to back Griffiths' bill.

In addition, a public survey on attitudes to food marketing was carried out and promoted. This showed that the majority of consumers believe the heavy marketing of unhealthy food makes it harder for children to eat a healthy diet.

The campaign attracted 189 mentions, including 15 each in broadcast and national print media as well as 104 articles in regional newspapers. Among those to cover the story were The Guardian, Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror.

The Independent on 7 April published a story focusing on the high numbers of children watching programmes such as Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway that carry advertising for unhealthy foods. Other headlines included 'Food Ads Harming Children's Health' in the Metro and 'Tony They're Not So Grrreat" in the Scottish Daily Mail. Broadcast coverage included an interview with Griffiths on BBC Scotland.

Griffiths' bill failed as only 42 MPs voted for it at the second reading. Despite this 227 MPs did sign an early day motion in support of curbs on unhealthy food marketing.

Which? received 9,000 requests for the bag and its campaign website gained 18,000 hits in the first few days of the bag being made available in March, compared with the usual rate of 800 a week.

Chris West, account director, Insight Public Affairs

This media campaign had great success in the level and quality of coverage, and in directing people to the campaign's website. Furthermore, consumer surveys and regional press activity will often make a constituency MP sit up and take notice.

But ultimately, the goal was to increase support for the bill. The low number of MPs supporting it is more down to the campaign's message, rather than the well planned and executed tactics.

Which? has had great success on advertising during children's shows. But, when the debate moves towards the need to protect young viewers of Coronation Street (surely inappropriate viewing with rape, murder and teenage pregnancy) from seeing a chocolate advert half-way through the programme, support falls away among arguments over parental responsibility, nanny states and broadcast funding.

Public affairs campaigns work best when raising awareness of a policy area which government has overlooked, or providing practical partnership solutions to help government deliver its agenda. The lengthy Ofcom consultation on advertising to children, and its conclusion that a watershed ban was disproportionate, means this campaign does not tick either box.

No-one underestimates the scale of the obesity crisis. But it is the relative reward of a ban compared with the effect on broadcasting funding where the real argument lies for the Government. The campaign did not address this.

What it did do was raise two questions for the health lobby - does the advertising watershed campaign still represent the best policy opportunity to combat the obesity crisis? And does a re-tabled private members' bill represent the best way of delivering this goal? I remain to be convinced that the answer to either is 'yes'.

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