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Our children are too fat, but censorship is not the solution

We should educate children to make healthy food choices, not ban fast-food adverts from the internet

Our children are much too fat. By the age of 5 roughly one in ten is classed as obese, rising to one in five at 11 years old. The government has expressed a desire to wage a war on obesity, with a widespread control on online advertising. 

In July the government took advantage of the not-quite-lockdown to announce its intention to introduce a ban on all pre-watershed TV ads for foods classed as HFSS: that is, high in fat, sugar and salt content. (Salt is correctly included here, since ingesting large amounts of it can slow the metabolism and enhance the build-up of body fat.) This, however, was a fairly low-key development; despite the government having made a good deal of noise about it, there was already a ban on TV ads for such things in programmes geared towards young audiences, and so its effect is likely to be minimal. 

Why not campaign directly to parents, encouraging them to look closely at what their children eat?

Last week’s announcement that the administration plans to extend the bar on advertisements to the internet is a different kettle of fish. It shows that, ever unpredictable, Boris has now gone full valetudinarian. The DCMS and the Department of Health have issued a joint public consultation, asking respondents to confirm if they are happy to have a total bar on the online advertising of any HFSS foods aimed at UK consumers. The prohibition is to be policed by the Advertising Standards Authority and enforced by a regulator equipped with legal powers to fine offenders (unspecified, but it would very likely be Ofcom). 

The consultation, in the manner of nearly all such documents these days, asks not for our thoughts, but for our answers, with evidence, to a series of 38 predetermined questions. Only one of these deals with whether we think a ban might not be a good thing, the rest detailing how we think it should work; essentially this is a fait accompli. A series of questions at the end about the effect of the proposals on the organisation the respondent represents betrays a common assumption lying behind surveys of this kind: that this is really a survey of organisations, and an attempt to get them on-side, rather than a concerted attempt to gauge wider public opinion.

Unsurprisingly, while the advertising industry has been unhappy with this development, health-based pressure groups have been united in their adulation of the government for its willingness to invoke public health in order to interfere with what we are allowed to see and hear. When looking at this dilemma more closely, however, it emerges that the concept is actually a pretty terrible idea.

Admittedly, there is a case to be made for carefully targeted action. Children are all too frequently plonked in front of the telly when they get back from school as a means of free unsupervised childcare; on occasion they are also told by frazzled parents to order some form of takeaway for their evening meal. The ban on pre-watershed TV ads, insofar as its covers high-salt takeaways and sweets, for example, may well go some way in preventing at least some children from demanding unhealthy food – and from parents being coerced into buying these things in order to have a quiet life.

Nevertheless, what is being proposed by the government is very different. 

For one thing, the idea that these proposals are really intended as a response to demands for relief from harassed parents is rather implausible. One doubts whether working parents have been actively demanding, or even wishing for, measures of this kind. It is much more likely that most of the demand has come from the well-meaning middle classes, and from metropolitan pressure groups with a paternalistic mission to save the benighted lower classes from themselves and a general mission to mould society in their image.

Children are regarded as helpless empty vessels with no agency

This is borne out by the fact that the mooted ban would go way beyond what is necessary to protect children. It would have been perfectly possible to restrict the ban to standard fast-food fare: say, high-salt takeaways, chips, crisps and possibly sweets. Instead, the ban is a prohibition on promoting any foods officially classed as HFSS. On the basis of that definition (analysed usefully by the IEA last year), those goods banned from advertising would include not only classic fast-food outlets such as McDonalds, but also staple items such as butter, Marmite, jam, raisins, hummus, walnuts, pâté, salami, tomato soup, dried fruit, and cereal bars, not to mention olive oil, most yoghurt, and nearly all cheese.

One is left with a distinct impression that just as hard-line scientists bounced the government into Lockdown 2.0 without giving it the chance to step back and think, much the same here has been done by a collective of faddish nutritional puritans. Their eyes are, one suspects, fixed not so much on the specific problem of child obesity, but on the prospect of persuading governments to adopt as the new normal a degree of administrative control over food advertising and the national diet not seen since wartime.

Another worrying point is that, like the government’s disconcerting plans in respect of what it refers to as online harms, these proposals will involve a very substantial degree of governmental surveillance of, and control over, the internet. This cover would not be limited to websites, but also social media and all other forms of online product placement. Indeed, the introduction to the consultation contains the innocent-sounding words: “We welcome views on the extent to which an online total restriction on advertising in the UK could be made to apply to online advertising served in the UK, but originating from advertisers or intermediaries based overseas”.

This suggests that the government also has it in mind to take steps to control foreign websites, thus presumably raising the prospect of ISPs being brought into the fray with blocking requests (ironically requests which children, as ever more savvy than their parents on matters such as Tor and VPNs, are likely to be best placed to circumvent). 

As an incidental effect, the proposals will also place a great deal of power in the hands of the ASA, which will be responsible for day-to-day decision-making about what needs to be policed and what counts as advertising. Whether this entirely private organisation, already entrusted with virtually complete control over what ads are allowed on TV and radio (since any Ofcom licence to broadcast is conditional on following its instructions), should be given such sweeping online powers is, to say the least, a matter of some controversy.

But what is perhaps most depressing about all of this, even if we assume that it is indeed about protecting the young, is the way such measures regard children. They are apparently seen as helpless empty vessels with no agency, blown this way and that by wicked food manufacturers and advertisers. But what about the function of parents and the family?

Rather than introduce blanket prohibitions on advertising going beyond those found anywhere else (and indeed proudly advanced as such), why not campaign directly to parents, encouraging them to look closely at what their children eat, and to educate their children to not believe all they read or see when surfing the internet? In the long term one suspects hands-on parenting of this sort is likely to do a great deal better than simply taking the easy way out and pandering to the pressure of intrusive nutrition punditry.

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