Unhealthy Food Ads Banned in the UK 2021


Last week, it was confirmed by the British government that, in an attempt to fight widespread obesity, promotions on food and drinks high in fat, sugar, and salt (HFSS) will be restricted from October 2022. Under the new regulations, adverts for HFSS products will not be allowed to air on television before 9 pm. In addition, paid-for ads on sites including Facebook and Google by big brands will also be banned.


What constitutes a ‘big brand’?

As it stands, the new rules will apply to companies that employ 250 people or more—all smaller companies are exempt. Of course, this is liable to change as the government officials have stated that they “will continue to work with businesses, trade associations and local authorities to ensure they are supported in implementing the new requirements ahead of them coming into force. This will include sharing draft guidance with industry and local authorities to provide further clarity on how these restrictions will need to be implemented in practice.”


Unhealthy food ads ban extended to online marketing, but there’s a catch

The fact that the ban has also been extended to online platforms, such as Facebook and Google, reflects the fact that the government understands where many consumers spend the vast majority of their time and are most subject to influence. At the same time, the government has allowed numerous exceptions and carve-outs, leaving for a lot of wiggle room when it comes to social media. As our online marketing wizard Chris Smid observed, “This is potentially great news for social media, as TV ads might run over to social media platforms instead.”

And they will, indeed, be able to do so.

Under the new rules, companies will still be able to show marketing on their own websites and social media accounts. Not to mention, some foods that are HFSS that are not viewed as traditional “junk food” or are not deemed nutritionally to be an HFSS product—zero-sugar drinks and McDonald’s nuggets, for example—will still be allowed to feature in advertising.

Interesting, brand-only advertising online and on TV will also continue to be allowed. This means that companies associated with junk food products can still market themselves, as long as those products that fall under the HFSS umbrella do not appear.


A matter of definitions

Of course, as anyone who has ever spoken with a nutritionist knows, putting labels on what foods are good and bad is not an easy business. As our Senior Product Manager Mike Staal surmises, “It’s a great initiative! But defining what’s healthy and unhealthy… that is really difficult. It will be interesting to see how brands take to other platforms, like Twitter, to communicate promotions and highlight their products.”

Currently, the government has provided a 2-stage process to define what products are captured by the promotions restrictions. First, the products will only be subject to the restrictions if they are in a narrowed set of categories listed in regulations. If a product falls into one of these categories, then the second stage is to apply the 2004 to 2005 Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM). If a food products scores 4 or above or a drink product scores 1 or above it will be considered as HFSS and not able to be promoted.


Advertisers in the UK

Not surprisingly, advertisers in the UK are not happy about being subject to more regulation and have made a point of expressing how futile they think the new rules will be when it comes to the ultimate goal of eliminating obesity. The advertising industry has said the government’s own impact assessment shows that a pre-9pm TV ad ban will only remove about 1.7 calories a day from a child’s diet, or “the equivalent of half a Smartie.”

As reported by The Guardian, Phil Smith, the director-general of ISBA, the body that represents UK advertisers said “There is no evidence that what ministers are proposing will have any meaningful impact on children’s health. It seems that government has plumped for headlines over meaningful reform.”


A sign of things to come?

Whether similar restrictions will be applied in other countries remains to be seen. That being said, as countries worldwide fight their own obesity struggles, it is safe to assume that regulators will be eager to follow suit. In the meantime, we will keep you informed as the measures roll out in October and provide analysis on how brands and companies are adapting and responding to the changes.

If you’d like to learn more about how to market your business while ensuring you adhere to all current regulations, don’t hesitate to get in touch and book an appointment with one of our experts.