Advertising is a free speech issue

The ban on junk food ads on British TV is far more 'mind-controlling' than anything a cynical adman could come up with.

I can’t have been the only person who, upon hearing that the Office for Communications planned to introduce a widespread ban on junk food advertising on British TV, thought to himself: ‘Who the hell do these poncy unelected suits think they are?’

And yet there has been little outcry over the ban. Ofcom announced this week that in March 2007 it will introduce a ‘total ban’ on ads for hamburgers, crisps, chocolate and other foodstuffs high in fat, salt or sugar during all children’s programming, on all children’s channels and during any other programmes that have a ‘particular appeal’ to 16-year-olds and under. The only complaint is that Ofcom hasn’t gone far enough. The failure to extend the ban to adults programmes that children also watch – like Coronation Street or, come to think of it, pretty much any show on TV – was a ‘betrayal’ of future generations, who now face the prospect of obesity, ill-health and early death, said health campaigners and commentators.

A far better response to Ofcom’s illiberal, patronising and bizarre ban would have been to tell Ofcom officials to get stuffed, and to disband themselves while they’re at it. I don’t hold a candle for big corporations; I don’t like the fact that they can afford to flog their wares in primetime TV slots or on big brash billboards on street corners, while cash-strapped outfits who make far better products – like spiked, for example – have to rely on word-of-mouth and something called ‘viral marketing’ (which I’ve never liked the sound of).

And yet I would far rather take my chances in the weird and loud chatroom that is the world of advertising than have public space sanitised on my behalf by an unrepresentative quango which, like mother, thinks it knows best. Advertising is a free speech issue, or at least it ought to be. Because behind today’s anti-ad campaigning there lurks a degrading view of the public as fickle and easily bought off, who must be protected from certain words and imagery by better men and women. And that is far more patronising – far more ‘mind-controlling’ – than anything a cynical suited and booted adman could come up with.

The first striking thing about Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is that the justifications for it are – if you will forgive my post-watershed language – total bollocks. Forget facts or evidence; this ban is based on a creepy combination of scaremongering, snobbery and paternalism.

Ofcom documents and media coverage of the ban constantly refer to ‘junk food’, as if it were an always-existing factual and historical category. In fact, some experts argue that there is no such thing as junk food. According to Vincent Marks, emeritus professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey and co-editor of Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We’re Told About Food and Health: ‘Junk food is an oxymoron. Food is either good – that is, it is enjoyable to eat and will sustain life – or it is good food that has gone bad, meaning that it has deteriorated and gone off.’ For Marks, the ‘junk food’ tag is a moral judgement rather than a health-based one: ‘To label a food as “junk” is just another way of saying, “I disapprove of it”.’ (1)

There’s always a big side order of snobbery in denunciations of junk food – which might explain why Ofcom’s rules will mean that Domino’s Pizzas (an eaterie popular in working-class areas) will have to stop sponsoring The Simpsons, while Gordon Ramsay (whose Channel 4 show The F Word is popular among teens who like his swearing and general cockiness) will still be free to make fatty dishes like duck a la orange and salty pork steaks and chunky chips with their red potato skins still attached. It is hard not to sympathise with the boss of Domino’s Pizzas, who said he might try to get around the new rules by sticking a bowl of salad next to his pizzas because at least salad is seen as ‘good’ grub (2).

Ofcom and its backers claim their tough action is necessary to stop the new generation of Brits from fast becoming the most ‘unhealthy in history’ (3). What, more unhealthy than those kids who lived through (or didn’t live through, more to the point) Black Death, smallpox, wars and food shortages? This is clearly codswallop. In 1900, there were 140 deaths per 1,000 births; that had fallen to 5.7 by 1999 and it continues to fall. Of those born in the early 1900s, 63 per cent died before they reached 60; today only 11 per cent die before 60. A boy born in 1901 could expect to live to 46, and a girl to 50; today a boy is likely to live to 76 and a girl to 81. British children can expect to live more comfortably, and for longer, than any generation in history.

And Ofcom relies on very shaky evidence for its basic premise that banning junk food ads will change children’s eating habits. One of its pieces of evidence is an email from a self-selected group of parents called NetMums, who claim that ‘TV ads for junk food do work – they make children demand junk food which inevitably means more consumption of junk food.’ (4) More serious studies have found little evidence of a clear link between ads and eating habits. As one news report said this week, there is a ‘relative paucity of evidence that TV advertising has much effect on children’s food choices’ (5). An academic study found that ‘just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising’ (6).

Ofcom’s ban is based on fear dressed up as facts: children are not as unhealthy as the hysterical headlines claim, and there’s little evidence that the blunt instrument of TV censorship will make them switch from a Happy Meal to broccoli with a side of semi-skimmed milk. What really seems to be motivating Ofcom and its supporters is a patronising view of parents. Mums and dads are seen as powerless to resist ‘pester power’ demands for sweets and snacks. In banning ads during children’s programmes, Ofcom sends a powerful message that parents cannot be trusted to do right by their kids. It is effectively setting itself up as a surrogate parent, making decisions on behalf of mums and dads who are apparently too weak-minded or thick to make the right decision themselves.

We’ve gone from ‘Watch with mother’ to ‘Watch with the strange men and women from a jumped-up quango called Ofcom because they’re more caring than your mother’.

Ofcom likes to present itself as a ‘media literacy’ outfit whose aim is to ensure balance and quality in the communications media in Britain. That is a case of false advertising if ever I heard one. Someone call the trading standards authority. In truth, Ofcom is a petty and censorious organisation seeking to control public debate and public space and protect people from what it views as their own worst instincts. It is at the forefront of new forms of censorship that cloak themselves in ethical lingo and use nice words like ‘diversity’ and ‘respect’ as a cover for clamping down on free speech.

So Ofcom banned a beer advert for giving ‘undue emphasis to the alcohol strength of the product’. Er, why else do people buy beer, if it isn’t for a bit of ‘alcohol strength’? It banned a radio ad that made a pun on the word ‘faggot’ (which can mean a meat product or a homosexual), decreeing that the ad was ‘capable of causing serious offence’. And usually it bans things in response to handfuls of complaints. That beer ad was banned after Ofcom received one complaint, the radio ad after it received three complaints. Recently Ofcom demanded that Hanna-Barbera remove all cigarette-smoking from its entire back catalogue of Tom and Jerry cartoons after it received a single complaint (7).

Ofcom represents the tyranny of the minority. What about the 60 million of us who aren’t offended by strong booze or the word ‘faggot’ or cartoon cats puffing on a cartoon fag? Why should the public realm – that marketplace of ads, goods, debate and argument – be designed to the tastes of tiny handfuls of people who are weirdly oversensitive? Outraged of Oldham was once restricted to writing cranky green-ink letters to the local paper. Now, thanks to Ofcom and its mission to ensure that no one is ever offended, he’s dictating what images and words the rest of us can see and hear.

No, the world of advertising is not a level playing field. Yes, big corporations can speak more loudly and to more people than you or I can. But we should still defend advertising from today’s gracious and caring censors. You can’t make things more equal or free by running to powerful bodies like Ofcom and pleading with them to punish the nasty corporation and its adman who offended your sensibilities on the train to work. I would rather be Richard Branson’s potential target than Ofcom’s bitch; a free citizen or consumer able to make up my own mind about what I want to buy from companies that are at least upfront, rather than the charge of a powerful quango whose board members I don’t know from Adam.

From Ofcom’s attack on junk food ads to those campaign groups who demand bans on ads for 4x4s, cheap flights, cigarettes and booze: the argument seems to be that people are gullible and thus must be watched over by caring men and women in positions of power. Funnily enough, that is the same justification used by censors throughout history, from Torquemada to Tony Blair: all of their bans are about giving a sedative to society, sanitising public discussion, and protecting people from an alleged harm. Thanks, but no thanks.

For Karl Marx, the ‘chatter’ of consumerist society was one of the more positive aspects of capitalism. The capitalist ‘searches for means to spur [people] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire [people] with new needs by constant chatter etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment…’ (8) So what if ads are sometimes irritating and get into our heads? Forever knowing the tune to ‘Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water’ is a small price to pay for openness in public space and chatter.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Is junk food a myth?, Brendan O’Neill, BBC News, 3 October 2005

(2) Curbs on children’s food ads leave sour taste, Daily Telegraph, 21 November 2006

(3) Crackdown on TV food ads aimed at kids, Daily Record (Glasgow), 18 November 2006

(4) NetMums food ad response, Ofcom, June 2006

(5) Media FAQ, Guardian, 20 November 2006

(6) Media FAQ, Guardian, 20 November 2006

(7) Stop this fatuous tyranny, Brendan O’Neill, The First Post, 29 August 2006

(8) Grundrisse, Karl Marx, Penguin 1973

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