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Corporate political activity in the context of unhealthy food advertising restrictions across Transport for London: A qualitative case study

The arguments opposing the policy proposal were largely consistent across food and advertising industry respondents, although submissions varied in emphasis. The vast majority claimed support for the overall goals of the London Food Strategy but opposed the advertising restrictions. Fast food delivery company Uber Eats, for example, supported the Mayor’s plan on reducing obesity “in general” [103]and the fast food company McDonald’s claimed to understand the need for regulation “in essence” [104]; both companies then moved on to oppose the proposed advertising restrictions. To justify opposition to the policy, commercial actors sought to extend the possible costs, while simultaneously underplaying the potential benefits of the policy. Within these discursive strategies, they employed 7 key arguments (Fig. 2). The language used in responses largely reflected a framing of obesity as a matter of individual choice, manifested, for example, in an emphasis on consumer choice and a rhetorical shifting of responsibility away from the companies that produce and market products. The discursive strategies we found were consistent with the PDM, at least one strategy, “unintended benefits to undeserving groups” (Table 1), which we did not identify.

Expanding or creating potential costs of the policy.

Unanticipated costs to economy and society. Multiple respondents predicted that the advertising restrictions would have unintended negative consequences on the economy and wider society. Emphasizing the economic importance of the food [103–109] and advertising [110–115] industries, many respondents warned of negative impacts of the proposed policy on TfL revenue [109,110,113,116–118]London’s economy [110,113,114,119]or wider society [111,113,114]. The fast food company Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC), for example, cautioned that “[f]unds to support London’s transport network would be lost ” [109]while advertising industry association Outsmart [113] cautioned of broader costs to the public good, claiming that the restrictions would

undermine our ability to invest in targeted measures to reduce childhood exposure to advertising and […] reduce our ability to commit current levels of funding to investments such as the installation of bus shelters and the provision of free WIFI.

They concluded that given “the severe impact a wholesale ban would have on our members, their customers and commercial freedom of speech as well as the knock-on adverse effects on the wider public interest, thorough consideration of alternative solutions […] is required ” [113].

Advertising companies and associations highlighted potential costs to themselves [110,111,113–116,119,120] and their food industry clients [116,118]in particular smaller companies [116]. Outsmart [113]for instance, claimed that

[t]here would be a severe impact on our members’ business, as the affected outdoor advertising space could not simply be resold for alternative products. The likely reduction in revenue for the industry would be £ 375m over the next 5 years.

The fast food company Subway, as the only food industry respondent discussing cost to its own business, claimed that, as Londoners are harder to reach through TV and radio advertising, “the impact of the proposed changes to out-of-home [advertising][…] would be substantial, directly leading to a reduction in footfall and business performance ” [121]. Respondents from fast food delivery companies also emphasized potential costs to smaller businesses [103].

Similarly, the policy was opposed on grounds it would be difficult to implement. Both fast food delivery company Just Eat and the business association British Takeaway Campaign warned that it would be challenging for smaller businesses to establish which of their products were HFSS, while advertising actors urged further consultation to improve the clarity of the policy [114,116,117,122]. Invoking parallel developments, the advertising restrictions were portrayed as adding to regulatory uncertainty in the context of Brexit [123]national obesity policy [110,113,122]a review by the Committee of Advertising Practice on their non-broadcast advertising rules [105,110,116,122]and the pending revision of the Nutrient Profiling Model [106,110,111,116,124]with some claiming the impact of the policy could not be assessed without the new model [105,107,113,122,125].

Several respondents argued that a ban on HFSS advertising should be rejected because it would be disproportionate [105,107,110,111,116–118,122,124,125]. Despite the evidence on the scale of the problem clearly presented in the consultation document [126]the Food and Drink Federation, for instance, argued that it “would for the first time in the UK create a ban on food products being advertised regardless of the proportion of children and adults seeing the adverts, and would impose stricter regulations on food compared to alcohol ” [107]. Similarly, and echoing concerns voiced by advertising businesses, the self-regulatory body ASA [120] argued that

most TFL properties at most times of the day have an entirely or almost entirely adult audience. Banning HFSS ads on these properties, at these times would do nothing to reduce child exposure to HFSS ads and, therefore, an outright ban would appear to be completely disproportionate to the stated aim.

Though distinct in their use of the legal principle of proportionality, these arguments essentially connect a range of other claims discussed in this section. In summary, they convey the picture that restricting HFSS advertising would result in costs to the economy and society, which would not be justified by any potential benefits, as well as challenging policy suitability — compared to less intrusive voluntary measures — and necessity. Proportionality arguments were also connected to denials of the evidence base underlying the policy (discussed below). The British Soft Drink Association, for instance, claimed that “academic research has consistently failed to establish a direct link between food and drink marketing and childhood obesity, so we are not convinced by the proportionality of further restrictions” [105].

Unintended costs to public health. Respondents claimed that the advertising restrictions might have an unintentional negative effect on public health by restricting the visibility of “healthier” alternatives [103–105,107,110,111,116,122–125,127,128]or even prompting a shift towards alcohol advertising [122], the latter contradicting Outsmart’s earlier claim that it would not be possible to resell advertising space. McDonald’s [104] warned that the policy risked “inadvertently increasing the obesogenic environment” because

only regulating marketing would have the unintended consequence of reducing the visibility of choice and restricting the information customers need to make the right choices for themselves and their families. […] restricting marketing in the wrong way will remove a key competitive lever and force business to consider changes to the price and quality of their food as the only remaining differentiators in the market.

Similarly, a number of respondents appeared for their own, “healthier” items such as fruit drinks [128]reformulated soft drinks [105]and dairy products [127] to be excluded from the advertising restrictions so as not to discourage their consumption or ongoing reformulation efforts, particularly in light of concerns that more of these products would be classed as HFSS under the draft updated 2018 Nutrient Profiling Model [129]. As of April 2021, the outcome of the 2018 consultation on the updated Model is pending.

Containing or denying potential benefits to public health.

Commercial actors downplayed the potential benefits of advertising restrictions, arguing they are unlikely to work, were not supported by evidence, and were not needed. This undermining of potential policy benefits was rooted in arguments that childhood obesity is too complex to be appropriately addressed by advertising restrictions and instead required a “holistic approach” comprising a strong role for industry and nonstatutory interventions [109,113,122,123,125]. Ironically, the limited nature of the policy proposal, focused on out-of-home advertising, was used as an argument against regulatory action rather than in favor of more comprehensive measures. For example, some advertising industry respondents — notably all in the outdoor advertising business — warned that the policy would merely shift advertising into other, less regulated spaces, such as online [112–115,117,130].

Central to challenges to the policy’s effectiveness were discussions of evidence, invoked both as a rhetorical concept and by referring to specific sources. Despite compelling evidence that advertising influences children’s diets [15,131–133]food and advertising industry actors commonly claimed that empirical evidence in support of advertising restrictions was absent or insufficient [105,107,110,113,116,120,125]. A number of respondents explicitly questioned the established link between advertising and eating behavior [105,110]: The ASA, for instance, argued that “evidence consistently shows that advertising has no more than a modest influence on children’s food preferences,” citing no evidence to support that specific claim or anywhere in their submission [120].

Similarly, respondents portrayed the proposed advertising restrictions as redundant despite persistently high obesity rates [2,56], arguing that existing regulation, co-regulation, or self-regulation was sufficient or that the problem could be addressed through nonstatutory measures. Several ultraprocessed food industry actors underscored that they have responsible marketing measures in place and claimed that they do not advertise to children [103–105,108,109,123,134]. KFC, for instance, stated that they “do not and never will target children in [their] advertising, no matter the product or media channel ” [109]. The Committees of Advertising Practice’s CAP and BCAP Codes were frequently invoked as sufficient [105,107,110,111,114,116,120,122–125]with the Food and Drink Federation, for example, arguing that “[t]he UK has one of the strictest advertising regulatory regimes in the world ” [107]. In addition to highlighting ongoing voluntary efforts, many respondents endorsed further nonstatutory measures as a more desirable alternative, such as expanding existing self-regulatory practices [103,108,109,111,113,114,117,118,123,134] or harnessing advertising to promote healthy behavior [104,109,111–114,117,119,123,130]. McDonald’s, for instance, made an appeal “to discuss how we can use our marketing skill to help the Mayor achieve his objectives” [104]. Correspondingly, a number of advertising industry respondents proposed a food equivalent to Drinkaware and GambleAware notices on alcohol and gambling adverts [113,114,117,118]linking to the existing TreatWise initiative founded by snack producer Mondelez International [135,136]. In a similar way, using technological innovation to spatially and temporally restrict HFSS advertising was a popular alternative [103,106,108,109,111,113,114,117,118,122,134]. Domino’s, for example, explained that “[t]his might mean changing the time of day at which our ads are shown to avoid them being seen by children, for example, stopping them in late afternoon when children are on their way home from school ” [134].

Respondents also criticized the effectiveness and appropriateness of the technical model underlying the proposed policy: the British Soft Drink Association, for example, stated that the Nutrient Profiling Model defines “products as HFSS, not as‘ unhealthy ’and therefore we do not believe the NPM [Nutrient Profiling Model] is the appropriate mechanism for determining whether food and drink products are ‘unhealthy’ ” [105].

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