Advertising -safeguarding A Free Society

As a former businessman my instinctive reaction to news of new government regulation invariably is one of suspicion. When the body that regulates television (Ofcom) began a widespread consultation at the end of last year on a proposal to restrict food and soft drinks advertising in programmes with particular appeal to children my hackles were raised.

Fundamentally I believe that advertising is one of the most important safeguards for a free and open society. In principle I do not object to the notion that very dangerous or highly addictive products should be outlawed. But in my view products that are widely and legally available should not be subject to advertising bans. Naturally some intoxicants such as alcohol or addictive products such as tobacco cannot legally be sold to minors under a certain age. In that regard commensurate restrictions on advertising directed at minors for such products are, to my mind, entirely acceptable.

Highly orchestrated media campaigns by activists for a blanket pre-9pm watershed ban on junk food advertising on television have been proposed in recent years. Whilst this has had some support in government, Ofcom regarded it as disproportionate in the balance between the economic impact and social benefit.

Two groups stand to lose out most of all by marketing restrictions the advertising industry itself, but also independent television companies which are reliant upon advertising in funding the production of high quality new children’s programming. Perhaps understandably the advertising industry expresses deep frustration at this turn of events. Indeed, recognising the increasing concern about child obesity, the advertising industry has proposed strict new rules on content such as the removal of licensed characters and celebrities from adverts that are targeted directly at primary school children. This amounts to effectively a voluntary code, albeit one established in the shadow of concerted media-led pressure tantamount to blackmail.

The original proposals to restrict advertising were specifically targeted at children up to the age of 11 but are now likely to be extended to all age groups up to 16. As ever in the course of any blanket proposal there is always likely to be the risk of unintended consequences and so it has proved. My constituency in particular Soho and the West End area contains the heart of Britain’s independent television industry. A number of such companies creating children’s programmes wrote to me to say that their high quality and domestically produced programming has a five decade long tradition of excellence.

This thriving, world-leading industry now feels under threat because of the financial problems faced by ITV, the biggest investor in new UK children’s programming in the commercially funded broadcasting sector but also the result of the food and drink advertising proposals.

It is accepted that the broadcasters’ investment in programming is directly linked to the amount of advertising surrounding that programming. By restricting advertising, Ofcom as the TV regulator effectively restricts broadcasters’ ability to invest in new UK programming. The proposed advertising ban will result in the loss of revenues in the region of £39 million per year, according to government figures although this will fall away over time as advertisers adapt to the new rules. However, the average annual amount invested by commercial channels in new UK children’s programming is estimated to be in the region of £30-35 million.

Paradoxically, this will help undermine one of the strongest defences for the maintenance of the TV licence fee, for we are heading towards the situation where the BBC will be the only significant investor in new UK children’s programmes. The proposed ban will end the very tough competition between it and the commercial sector. Only strong competition will ensure that innovation and flair will be at the heart of children’s programming a joy to generations of British children, but also to young people across the world to whom these programmes are sold.

The health benefits of reducing the amount of sugar-filled food and soft drink that children consume cannot be denied. However, other countries have succeeded in stimulating the production of children’s television while introducing advertising restrictions. For example, in Australia, where adverts during children’s programming have for some years been restricted, the leading public film and television agency invests more than half of its total funding for television in children’s programmes.

It is fashionable to criticise all such measures as being the result of a ‘nanny state’. Clearly children need a level of media protection greater than that afforded to adults. But even for the youngest and most impressionable minds, advertising should be regarded as a positive experience, allowing the younger generation to make a choice about products that it wishes to consume. Without plentiful choice we all will be living in a duller and less free world.