Advertising: To Ban – or Not to Ban?

advertising400In case you missed the headline news today: the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has asked the government to ban advertising of unhealthy food and fizzy drinks before 9pm (see BBC report here) in order to tackle the rising obesity epidemic. This, of course, seems like a good idea at first sight – but unfortunately, banning advertising is unlikely to have a lasting effect.

For one, advertising of high sugar, high fat etc foods is already banned for programmes which attract a largely teenage audience. You’d probably expect this ban to have an effect – but it appears it simply doesn’t. The simple reality is: Young children may no longer view quite as many ads as they used to – but they are still getting fatter. So the question is, what would banning advertising before 9pm, before any other time – or in fact overall, really do? The interesting answer is, that a ban would probably not do much. Not because advertising is not effective, but because it is only a small part of the arsenal that marketers use to sell their stuff. And while it appears to have been fairly effective some time ago, more recent studies have mostly failed to show much of an effect at all. I’m not saying a very small effect is no effect, of course not, but, a small effect remains small – and the evidence suggest it is becoming smaller.

So what would be effective? Let’s try it “the other way round”. If a  marketer comes up with a campaign that would only rely on television advertising, any marketers with a braincell would call the person mad. Even more so if the campaign would be for a pretty well established brand – and most junk food items are very much household names. So what other channels would make up a realistic campaign: Of course, much of the campaign would probably focus on public relations, promotions, packaging (all not mentioned), distribution (mentioned, though tough to enforce) and above all … focus on social media.

Social Media is where young (and not so young) people like brands, interact with them – alongside their real friends, for example by liking them on Facebook. Unfortunately the effect is much less overt than seeing an advert on television – and therefore also much more problematic, as many people may not even realise that the lovely updates and funny pictures are there to sell them something (that would be reduced “persuasion knowledge” in marketer lingo).

Another important tool of a successful campaign will likely include games and apps. Again, these are not mentioned by the Academy. Yet, most teenagers play advergames regularly… and while an ad may be seen only once or twice, they voluntarily play games often over and over again… sometimes over a 100 times. You can make your own mind up what is more likely to be effective. These games, of course, can be found on websites, social media sites and mobile phones. And very few people really think of what an app tries to do when downloading another free app, or playing a game online (so again, very much reduced “persuasion knowledge”).

So calling for a simple ban on advertising  before a certain time, and some distribution, might indeed make current legislation a bit tighter. But it’s important to remember that the current regulation has actually not achieved the desired outcome in the first place. So while tightening it up may have an other small effect, it simply fails to take account of the wider – and more holistic – ways in which junk food is marketed. A simple ban is like removing one bullet out of a revolver cylinder. It may seem like a lot – but I’d not give that revolver to anybody to play with.

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