Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CSR or regulation for food advertising?

CSR is often seen as a way of forestalling legislation, or of replacing hard government regulation with softer self-regulation from industry. In the UK, where governments since the 1980s have tended to champion CSR, comes news of another victory for self-regulation over mandatory restrictions, this time in the area of food advertising.

In the wake of increasing concerns over childhood obesity, and a general dismay over the junk that makes up many children's diets today (cynics will say that all British people eat crap food, but one half of Crane and Matten at least tends to deny that), fast food companies and soft drinks multinationals have been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism.

So expectation was high that a new "obesity strategy" about to be launched by the UK Government would impose tighter restrictions on advertising of junk food. This follows a self-regulatory code launched by the soft drinks industry a couple of years ago, and new TV advertising restrictions from the communications regulator Ofcom last year that banned advertising of unhealthy food during kids programs. Health campaigners were anticipating an announcement that would extend these restrictions yet further.

According to the UK newspaper, The Guardian, though, the plans have been put on ice in favour of a more "collaborative approach" between government and industry. By this, we suppose, we can expect more CSR style self-regulation. What remains to be seen however is what form it will take.

One promising route would be something along the lines of the Europe wide voluntary initiative introduced by Coca-Cola and friends in 2006 that commited members of the Union of European Beverages Associations (Unesda), to ban advertising to children under 12, to no longer install vending machines in primary schools, and to supply machines in secondary schools with healthier products.

The initiative's first independent monitoring report, by PriceWaterhouseCoopers is now available on-line. This shows that some progress has certainly been made, especially in terms of direct advertising, whilst the vending machines issue still requires some greater effort to reach compliance.

OK, so the initiative is voluntary and there are no fines for non-compliance, but for a CSR programme it probably should be appauded - after all, it sets out measureable targets, establishes independent monitoring, and commits to publish them where we can all take a look and see how they're doing.

So if the UK government does go down the CSR route to further self-regulation in food advertising to children, it will certainly be a blow to the advocates of good old fashioned regulation as a means of keeping the big corporations on the right track. But let's hope that if that is the case, they at least use - and let's be optimistic here, maybe even improve upon - the models that are already being introduced into the industry. True, on their own, they're not going to stop anyone getting fat, but the less scope corporations have to simply shrug their shoulders and say "it's not our problem", the better.

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