Thursday 12 November 2020

Junking business

No chance of being able to advertise these tempting artisan cakes

Still deep in the Covid crisis, and with the end of the Brexit transition period fast approaching, you might imagine that the government had its hands pretty full. But they have still found time to launch a consultation on a total ban on Internet advertising of so-called “HFSS” (High in Fat, Salt or Sugar) food products.

The ostensible aim is to combat childhood obesity, but it seems to stem from the “something must be done” school of policymaking. The thought process seems to be that, if children spend a lot of time on the Internet, banning advertising there will reduce their exposure to it and thus their consumption of such foods. However, the government’s own estimates assume that average calorie consumption will be reduced by a mere 2.8 calories a day, and that itself is an increase from an initial estimate of just 0.3 calories. It is also very poorly targeted, with many items included that have little or no appeal to children. How many, for example, go out shopping for cooking sauces?

As I reported last year, the definition of HFSS foods includes many items that are generally perceived as wholesome and natural, such as orange juice, butter, full-fat cheese and milk, and many meat products including bacon. The lazy assumption is that it just applies to crisps and burgers, but many companies who perceive themselves as being in the health food market are taken aback to find themselves in the fiiring line too. Small artisanal producers are affected just as much as the big boys, and may indeed find the impact even more severe.

As Christopher Snowdon points out, the proposed scope of the restrictions is quite breathtaking. Not only does it include anything with added sugar, such as biscuits, jams, ice cream and yoghurts, but also a long list of savoury items as shown in the graphic below.

It’s hard to think of many food items involving any processing whatsoever that will be excluded. These aren’t just a small subset of particularly harmful products, but a huge swathe of what most ordinary people actually eat and enjoy as part of their normal everyday diets.

The Internet is no longer just a fancy little add-on for companies, but the principal channel of advertising and promotion. Deprived of that, it is much harder to do business. As I have pointed out before in the context of tobacco and alcohol, advertising bans have little effect on underlying demand, but what they do do is to ossify the market. It becomes difficult or impossible to launch new products, let alone for entirely new competitors to enter. This will especially affect small start-up companies wishing to challenge the dominance of existing players. It will be a kick in the teeth for thousands of small businesses. It seems redundant to express surprise at such a policy being floated by a Conservative government when they have spent most of the past year being just as authoritarian and anti-business as anyone else.

The government have been generous enough to still permit factual listings of product details on company websites, so it won’t stop online sales, either direct or through supermarkets, or takeaway ordering. But will it even be acceptable to show a photo of the product concerned? And you certainly won’t be permitted to advertise the fact that you offer these products anywhere else. How, for example, will a wedding cake maker be able to inform anyone that they provide that particular service?

The government spends a lot of time promoting distinctive British food products around the world, but it would be ironic if they were extolling the virtues of Lancashire hotpot, Wensleydale cheese and Melton Mowbray pork pies while at the same time preventing them from being advertised in their country of origin. And, if you imagine that none of this is going to be applied to alcohol over the next few years, then I have a bridge to sell you.


  1. Disturbing and autocratic but presumably there is still an argument to be had along the lines of law of unintended consequences?

    1. It's only a consultation. Not sure, though, whether the scope for unintended consequences is that great compared to some other policies. Harming businesses selling food is sort of the point, really.

      Compare with minimum alcohol pricing where there is considerable scope for transfer of demand to home-made hooch and illegal drugs. Somehow I doubt whether there will be a big upsurge in home baking.

  2. Professor Pie-Tin12 November 2020 at 13:03

    More in similar vein on the Irish Nanny State.
    Lady Pie-Tin and I were mooching around our local Tesco yesterday negotiating aisles of items blocked off for being non-essential when we approached the booze section and were surprised to find it totally blocked off with barrier gates and high walls.
    It must be Covid-19 we thought.
    But no we woke up to find today is the first day of implementation of a 2018 Act which requires all mixed-use shops to screen off all alcohol to prevent kiddies casting a longing gaze over it.
    It is, according to anti-alcohol lobbyists, " a new opportunity to end the normalisation of alcohol throughout society."
    Alcohol advertising is to be banned within 200 metres of a school, crèche, or local authority playground and in or on public service vehicles, at public transport stops or stations.
    It's hard to explain just how thoroughly downtrodden this once party-loving, to hell with the consequences country has become.

    1. The Stafford Mudgie12 November 2020 at 21:32

      P P-T,
      "requires all mixed-use shops to screen off all alcohol to prevent kiddies casting a longing gaze over it" reminds me of when I was a "kiddie" and kept noticing that all pubs had frosted or glazed glass that prevented me from seeing what was inside, and that created a fascination that became almost an obsession resulting in me using them regularly from the age of sixteen until six months ago.

  3. Replies
    1. Professor Pie-Tin14 November 2020 at 09:59

      You think that's bad.
      I'm currently more than two weeks into a lockdown that doesn't allow me more than 5km from my home which the government says may or may not be relaxed in time for Christmas.
      But today they've assured the population that even if it's not police won't be calling to homes on Christmas Day to check on the numbers of people there.
      And we're supposed to be grateful for that.
      Ireland has become like New Zealand but without the sheep.

    2. You can go to the pub and to sporting and entertainment events in NZ, so maybe not?

  4. I'd say that junk food advertising doesn't make people go out and eat it as they'll do that anyway, rather it influences which variety of junk food they eat. That said, I'd say the vast majority of high fat and high carb food is bought from independent takeaways who don't advertise on TV anyway.

    1. Umm, this is pretty much all prepared food - it goes way beyond just "fast food" and takeaways.

      Plus it's Internet advertising, not TV :-|

    2. Ah. So basically everything that's been processed in anyway, including simple, traditional recipes. Lunacy.

  5. We shop for our food online using the Asda website. Will this banning of online advertising actually bugger up online food shopping? They have (gulp) pictures of the foodstuff they sell. Including jam, marmalade, crisps, cream crackers etc.

    1. They have to allow listings of the products and their prices, but maybe not pictures. If they banned it entirely it would stuff a large section of the economy.


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