Great Britain

Why Scotland has some of strictest advertising regulations in the world – Guy Parker

It's an inescapable fact that Scotland has high levels of alcohol-related illness and obesity, says Guy Parker
It's an inescapable fact that Scotland has high levels of alcohol-related illness and obesity, says Guy Parker

Scotland’s food and drink industry is fantastic, but advertising regulations are necessary in the fight against alcohol-related diseases and obesity, writes Guy Parker of the Advertising Standards Authority.

Scotland’s food and drink industry is a real success story, producing products that are loved around the world. It’s thanks in no small part to the iconic status of its produce that Scotland also has a vibrant advertising landscape.

Over the festive season in particular, advertising and the food and drink industry become inextricably linked – witness the big-budget ad campaigns by major supermarkets competing to tug on our heartstrings as well as our wallets. So it’s perhaps no surprise that many of us will have overindulged at Christmas.

It’s that association between advertising and consumption that has sounded a note of caution among policy makers. Some of Scotland’s iconic brands and products sit against a backdrop of growing public health concerns.

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While far from being a public health challenge unique to Scotland, it’s an inescapable fact that the country has high levels of obesity and alcohol-related illness. It’s affecting mortality rates and impacting on young people, with 26 per cent of Scottish children at risk of being overweight (13 per cent of being obese) and alcohol-related hospital admissions four times higher than in the early 1980s. Clearly, those figures are troubling and steps are needed to address them.

Alcohol and aggression

In response, the Scottish Government has set out strategies to tackle those public health concerns, including proposals to tighten further the restrictions around the advertising of alcohol and less healthy foods. Of course, we want to help. In particular, to show how the ad rules we police – in an evolving online landscape – have at their heart the protection of vulnerable people, particularly children.

Companies advertising alcohol cannot encourage excessive drinking. They aren’t allowed to link alcohol with aggressive or irresponsible behaviour, to imply that alcohol can enhance confidence or popularity, to link alcohol with seduction, sexual activity or sexual success, to show alcohol being handled or served irresponsibly or to show people drinking or behaving in a way that might appeal to under-18s. And anyone featuring in an alcohol ad must not only be 25 or older, they must look it too.

But it isn’t just about the content of ads, it’s also about who might be seeing them. We restrict where ads for certain products – like alcohol and food and drink high in fat salt or sugar (often referred to as HFSS) – can be placed. The rules on HFSS products, for example, apply across media including online, and prohibit those ads from appearing in any children’s media, whether that’s a children’s TV channel, magazine, app or a YouTube channel aimed at under-16s.

Protecting the vulnerable

Those rules amount to some of the strictest regulations in the world and reflect the reality that people are seeing ads across an ever-growing variety of media platforms.

Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. As the UK ad watchdog, we have to weigh the legitimate rights of an advertiser to promote legally available products that can be, and by and large are, consumed responsibly by the majority of consumers with the need to protect vulnerable groups, including children, from harm.

In doing so, we must look at the direct impact advertising can have on people’s choices and write rules that restrict their exposure accordingly. Of course, we must also be mindful of the many other factors that contribute, above and beyond advertising, to rates of childhood obesity or problem drinking – think sedentary lifestyles, education, parental influence and the affordability of healthier alternatives.

The evidence around the impact advertising has on people’s choices can change over time. When it does, our rules must evolve to reflect those changes.

Our New Year’s resolution is to ensure we continue to have an open and healthy conversation with the Scottish Government, ministers and officials, as well as other organisations across Scotland, to ensure that our regulation remains in the right place.

We’re determined to play our part in ensuring that we respond to public health concerns and provide the public with the right level of protection, while continuing to allow Scotland’s fantastic food and drink sectors, and the creative industries that support them, to thrive.

Guy Parker is the chief executive of the Advertising Standards Authority