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Boris Johnson Wants Blanket Ban on Online ‘Junk Food’ Ads Because He Got Coronavirus

The strictness of new government proposals on online food advertising derives from the prime minister’s experience with COVID-19

Boris Johnson Campaigns For Leadership Of The The Conservative Party In Yorkshire
Photo by Darren Staples - Pool/Getty Images

The severity of new government proposals to regulate online food advertising has been credited to prime minister Boris Johnson’s time in intensive care with the novel coronavirus. A mooted unilateral ban on digital “junk food” advertising — including paid search, social media adverts, and, logically #ad posts on Instagram — would represent the toughest digital marketing restrictions in the world, according to the Guardian, and stem from Boris Johnson’s personal belief that his weight was a significant contributing factor in the severity of his illness with COVID-19.

As with the advertising ban on the Transport for London network that came into force in February 2019, the parameters are not dishes or genres of food, but the levels of salt, sugar, and/or fat in foods. The blunt force of such parameters means that while chips, burgers, and other stereotypically “bad” foods would not be eligible for advertising, the likes of peanut butter, cream, and avocado-on-toast would also be under fire. (At least there would be more room for housing ads for millennials.) It’s also unclear whether paid advertising through influencer marketing would be restricted, which advertising officials have a hard enough time regulating as it is. Under this Tory government, the only #gift is carrot sticks.

As might be expected, the reaction to the proposals is predictably polar: health campaigners with a vested interest in health campaigning love them and advertisers with a vested interest in advertising loathe them. As with its response to coronavirus food poverty and free school meal campaigning publicised by footballer Marcus Rashford, the government behind the proposals is focussed on emphasising personal responsibility, with a backdrop of paternalism. It has previously suggested that restaurants should include calorie counts on menus, under the guise of offering diners more informed personal choice, and in an even more misguided piece of paternalism, contemplated banning food on public transport in 2019.

The driving force behind all this campaigning is health secretary Matt Hancock’s drive to “halve childhood obesity by 2030,” which thus far amounts to defining foods as “good” or “bad” and then telling people when and where they can and cannot, should and should not eat them — with no regard for the animating causes behind living and working situations that might, for example, mean the only time someone can have dinner is on a bus. Imagine telling a family that they can’t eat dinner at the only time they might have available, and telling them it’s for the good of their health. That these new proposals, largely aimed at children, are reportedly animated by Boris Johnson himself being concerned about his own health says much.

The extent of these proposals represents the furthest the government could go — it’s not necessarily certain that they will even be introduced, let alone in their strictest form, and there’s a six week consultation period ahead. Let’s see.