The Committee of Advertising Practice (“CAP”) has today announced what it describes as ‘tough new rules’ banning the advertising of high fat, salt or sugar (“HFSS”) food or drink products in children’s media, following a lengthy consultation process which saw a total of 652 responses from the public, government officials, health professionals and various other interested individuals and companies from the food and drink industry.

The new framework, which will go live on 1 July 2017, will prohibit HFSS advertising from appearing in non-broadcast media aimed at those under the age of 16, or in any other media where children make up a significant proportion of the audience, being more than 25% of the total audience. The prohibition will apply to all forms of brand advertising, including company logos and characters, and will cover advertising in all online platforms, including social media pages and online gaming. It is intended that this significant change will result in a notable reduction in the exposure of those under the age of 16 to advertising for HFSS products, against the backdrop of increasing levels of excess weight and obesity in the United Kingdom, and a general concern that children’s diets are not currently in line with dietary recommendations.

In terms of the specific food and drink caught by this new prohibition, CAP has provided guidance for potentially affected parties, directing them to the Department of Health (“DoH”) nutrient profiling model available on the DoH website. This model is the same as that used as a reference point in the 2007 prohibition relating to the advertising of HFSS foods on television – allowing companies to classify products based on a points system. Any food scoring 4 or more points, and any drink scoring 1 or more points, will be classified as ‘less healthy’ and will therefore be subject to the advertising restrictions.

It will be noted that the new prohibition brings non-broadcast advertising rules in line with TV advertising rules, where this strict approach to the advertising of HFSS has been in place for close to a decade. This is a response to clear shifting media habits amongst young people and notable changes in advertising techniques in recent times; research shows that young people, and society in general, are spending an ever-increasing proportion of their time online (approximately 15 hours per week for those aged 5-15) in place of engaging in more traditional media forms such as television, and advertising techniques and strategies are duly responding to this shift. By targeting these popular non-broadcast forms of media it is intended that there will be a major reduction in the number of adverts for HFSS food and drinks seen by those below the age of 16. In their consultation document, CAP states that even a very small positive impact from the new restrictions could equate to a reduction in the potential for harm to children and, in turn, the wider detriment associated with childhood obesity.

Although CAP Chairman James Best has stated that the new restrictions will “significantly reduce the number of adverts for HFSS products seen by children”, there are still a number who consider that the new rules still do not go far enough in protecting children. Certain action groups, such as Action on Sugar, have called for the restrictions to be extended, including family talent programmes which are extremely popular with those under the age of 16 but which are currently exempt from the prohibition.

They key question that many food and drink companies and advertisers will have is what action they now need to take? The ASA will enforce the new regime from 1 July 2017, with all advertisements published from this date needing to comply with the new rules. The only exception to this will be an additional three month transitional period for advertisers who demonstrate that the media space in question was booked prior to the announcement of the consultation outcome on 8 December 2016. With this in mind, those affected by the upcoming prohibition should begin to look closely at their advertisements and to consult with their marketing contacts to discuss required changes. Marketing campaigns and initiatives are often planned months in advance, with large sums of money invested in new products and brand ideas, so these discussions should take place as soon as possible to keep losses to a minimum and to allow sufficient time to develop appropriate strategies.

CAP has confirmed its intention to engage with industry in the first half of 2017 to provide advice and training to assist preparations for the new framework, but food and drink companies should seek actively to take the lead in putting transition plans into place so they are compliant with the new rules on 1 July 2017. This will minimise the risk of the ASA determining that a company has breached the advertising code, and the detrimental publicity and negative financial consequences that this can often bring.

To download the full regulatory statement click here.