News Exchange: Regulation and responsibility
- 04 March 2019
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A weekly update on the latest headlines and highlights from the marketing sector
Blank billboards for TfL?
On Monday, a ban on junk-food advertising came into force across the Transport for London (TfL) travel network. Don’t go looking for blank billboards right away, though – contracts for existing campaigns will be honoured and there are apparently quite a few with a while still to run.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan hopes the ban will help him in his crusade against the capital’s childhood obesity problem. With almost 40% of 10-11-year-olds overweight or obese, it’s a laudable aim. Indeed, a public consultation last year showed 82% of people would support the move.
But CIM marketing director Gemma Butler would advise the Mayor not to hold his breath. “Personally, I question the extent to which this will help him in this aim. There are still Burger Kings and McDonald’s waiting for you at the beginning and end of your journeys. That’s where the real temptation is – not on the billboards.”
For its part, McDonald’s has already said it will continue to advertise with TfL, which doesn’t now allow ads starring foods and non-alcoholic drinks with high levels of salt, sugar or saturated fat, but will still accept campaigns from junk-food giants that focus on relatively healthy items. It seems likely that chains such as McDonald’s have anticipated this tighter regulation, and already adjusted their advertising accordingly. “Recent McDonald's TV slots have pushed, for example, its coffee, so it clearly sees value in promoting its brand this way. That brand is still synonymous with junk food, which makes it hard to see how it will be affected by this ban,” says Butler.
The ban’s impact on the children of London might also be negligible, given a YouGov survey that showed only 3% of TfL’s ad audience were children. Its biggest impact might in the end be on London’s transport network and its users. The Mayor’s Conservative opponents, who are not convinced other affected companies will follow McDonald’s in continuing to pay for Tube ads, have predicted the ban will cost TfL £13m a year in lost ad revenues. Certainly, TV and radio channels should take note: this is an interesting test case for the financial consequences of such a ban.
Right now, says Butler, “This feels like a stake in ground regarding the ever-prevalent issue of childhood obesity, but it’s one that might end up costing rather more than TfL bargained for.” With yet another YouGov poll suggesting that 62% of Londoners would not support the ban if it meant an increase in fares, its final cost might be measured in mayoral popularity as well as pounds.
While the junk-food giants work around their advertising ban, supermarkets have been struggling to get their heads around their new role as suppliers of healthy food.
A BBC Radio 5 Live investigation found that Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and Tesco were all stocking high-salt and high-saturated-fat products in store sections with names like ‘Healthier Choices’ and ‘Healthy and Diet Meals’. The British Dietitic Association said the stores were being “unhelpful” and “confusing” customers.
The Royal Society for Public Health went further. It advised that many products were being identified as healthy because they were vegetarian, vegan, ‘free from’ or ‘low calorie’, but could still contain high levels of sugar, salt or saturated fat. In light of this, it told the BBC there was “potential to have an independent supermarket regulator”.
One of the supermarkets’ responses to being caught out by the BBC suggests that “potential to have” could soon be superseded by a ‘real and urgent need for’. “When I first saw this story, I thought it was a simple case of poor store segmentation,” says CIM marketing director Gemma Butler, “but the three supermarkets in question have each responded with a different excuse – some of which are pretty poor – so now the story’s evolved somewhat.”
A Morrisons spokesman attempted to explain: “Our Healthier Choices section provides customers with the option to buy an item that is healthier than a product that meets a similar need. A Healthier Choices cheese will be substantially lower in fat than ones we sell elsewhere but might still carry a red traffic light label.”
Rather than using the subtle semantics of its own section names to justify where it’s been placing items of dubious nutritional value, Morrisons might do better to confront the confusion it is encouraging in its customers. As Mark Dodds, chair of CIM’s Food, Drink and Agriculture sector interest group, says: “Retailers are in a position of great trust and they need to ensure they don’t break that by ‘health-washing’ their products. They need to encourage a balanced diet and use their large communications budgets to educate consumers to understand the nutritional content of products in lights of their whole diets. It won’t be an overnight win, but a concerted effort by all retailers should have a positive long-term benefit on the health of the nation.”
It might also save those same retailers from the imposition of that independent regulator.
Microsoft employees demand a say
From irresponsible food retailers to potentially irresponsible tech giants. Last week, somewhere between 50 and 250+ Microsoft workers wrote to their bosses asking them not to let the US military use HoloLens headsets to “increase lethality”. The group of employees said they did not want to become “war profiteers” after Microsoft agreed a £370m contract to equip battlefield troops with up to 120,000 of the headsets to help them locate enemies faster.
This is not the first time employees of a tech giant have protested a management decision. Staff at Google pressurized it into abandoning a contract with the US government to supply AI tech to analyse drone imagery. In that instance, Google had fallen foul of its own AI ethics code. At Microsoft, however, there is no such code and, for CIM marketing director Gemma Butler, “It would be naïve to think they would give up a half-a-billion-dollar contract.”
Had there been a code, this would have been a story about a company that failed to live up to its employer brand. As it is, this is a story about a massive business deal that won’t be derailed by the complaints – however valid – of a minority of employees. Responding to the letter, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said management had “made a principled decision that we are not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy”.
Recently, Microsoft has been working hard to communicate the positive possibilities of its products. Last year, a TV ad for Microsoft Artificial Intelligence, which has potential to help farmers improve harvest yields, asked, ‘So how are we going to feed the world without wrecking the planet?’ The negative possibilities of some of its product range, however, remain to be seen.
“Technology such as this will always have many applications and purposes – both good and bad – which are often out of the manufacturer’s control. The interesting question,” says Butler, “is who ultimately takes responsibility if the technology falls into the wrong hands?”
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