On November 23, London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that, as of February, all advertisements for food high in fat, sugar and salt will be banned from the London tube and bus network. The measure is part of the mayor’s plan to decrease child obesity rates, but it is set to do nothing of the sort.
The city mayor has taken the example of Amsterdam, which introduced a similar ban last year, and which has seen significant reductions in childhood obesity in the past. However, associating those reductions with the metro ad ban is intellectually dishonest: for one thing, the ban only came into force in January this year, but the claims for significant reductions in childhood obesity are made for periods preceding the ban. In fact, the city of Amsterdam was already showing off with a 16 per cent reduction between 2012 and 2015. Back then, it boasted the advantages of the “Healthy Weight Campaign” by talking about raising awareness of parents, and investing into education regarding physical activity.
In October, Public Health England indicated that more than 37 percent of 10 and 11 year-olds in London are overweight or obese. It is often mistakenly argued that this is caused by high energy intake, but the obesity rates are dependent on the physical activity, which according to the Public Health England has decreased by 24 per cent since the 1960s. Daily calorie intake in the UK is also decreasing each decade.
So the problem isn’t that children eat too much, but that they move too little. When public health advocates use Amsterdam as an example, they act in bad faith.
But the advertising ban reveals more than just a disinterest in the facts, it is also a display of blatant distrust towards consumers. In essence, the message is: consumers don’t have free will, and are subjugated to advertising. Very few people will find this to be true. We see thousands of ads every year, of products that we’ll never buy. London City basically tells us that we’re mindless consumers, and not responsible individuals. If Sadiq Khan, buys his shampoos on impulse after passing Waterloo station, that’s his problem, not ours.
Advertising establishes brand recognition, and thereby consumer loyalty. There might be a lot of ads, yet the argument that it is oppressive reaches too far. Those billboards in the Tube, or at bus stations also aren’t targeted at children anyways, since most consumers using these services are adults. The city uses the iconic “think of the children” argument to ruin the fun for everyone else. A bulletproof case, since anyone who opposes the ban must be against children.
This doesn’t even mention the £25 million/year in lost ad revenue for TfL. Now that the ban also extends to river services, trams, coach stations, taxi and private hire, those losses could be even more considerable.
Meanwhile, there are actual ways of combating childhood obesity. Educators should not only focus on facilitating a workable diet – even though those are important – but also provide parents and schools with the tools to get children interested in sports. Whenever the World Cup is taking place, the number of children wanting to become football champions spikes, and so does the number of football matches popping up on playgrounds around Britain. Maintaining this sort of enthusiasm should be the goal: offering long-term sporty distractions to children is how they burn calories, and how we get those disconcerting obesity numbers down.
Banning ads in the tube is feel-good policy with no actual effects. It’s head-in-the-sand tactics of believing the problem will disappear if we get rid of advertising, when we actually know it won’t.
Let our politicians chew on that.