It’s just “not fair.” That’s both an accusation and an admission by Britain’s Susan Jebb, head of the United Kingdom’s meal monitor, the Food Standards Agency. The lament was occasioned by Jebb’s conclusion that advertising is “undermining people’s free will.”
“Advertising means that the businesses with the most money have the biggest influence on people’s behavior,” she continued. Specifically, firms that market what the state deems “junk food” have hypnotized the nation. Ad spending represents an intolerable impediment to the British government’s efforts to reduce rates of obesity among the public. By way of specifics, she submitted the obstacles before her government’s desire to ban cake from the workplace.
Jebb likened the presence of pastries in the office to the harm done to the unwitting by being surrounded by cigarette smoke. She appears to believe that this metaphor justifies any and all governmental efforts to protect the public from itself.
“We all like to think we’re rational, intelligent, educated people who make informed choices the whole time, and we undervalue the impact of the environment,” Jebb said. It turns out that we cannot control our irrational impulses. Or, rather, she cannot. “If nobody brought in cakes into the office, I would not eat cakes in the day,” Jebb confessed. “But because people do bring cakes in, I eat them.” That’s a choice she believes she shouldn’t be allowed to make, just as others cannot decide to wile away their hours in a “smokey pub” because they no longer exist.
Jebb’s fear for the public’s “free will” notwithstanding, she doesn’t sound like she believes that individuals can make rational choices for themselves at all. At least, not if their ability to engage in critical thought and calculate risk is impaired by the last billboard they saw or their relative proximity to confections. Jebb doesn’t trust her own good sense, which led her to conclude that she cannot trust yours either.
These were not errant comments from one of the U.K.’s bureaucratic buttinskies. The logic Judd articulated informs Britain’s forthcoming legal strictures on the promotion of foods and drinks determined by the nation’s regulatory apparatus to contain high levels of fat, salt, or sugars. The initiative will restrict producers’ ability to pitch the public on their products, and it will prohibit promotional gimmicks like “buy one get one free” deals or free refills on soft drinks. This explicit effort to make popular products more expensive has been put on hold amid London’s simultaneous efforts to combat the effects of inflation and the rising cost of living, but the initiative won’t be derailed by its unintended consequences.
Expectations about what these restrictions will achieve are high. A ban on advertisements on public transportation for foods with high salt, sugar, and fat content has been in place in London since 2019, and one study maintains that the prohibition has already prevented 94,867 people from becoming obese. This extremely specific finding is based on the results of household surveys and National Health Service trends, which underestimated the number of obese and overweight Londoners. Dismissing offhandedly the prospect of flawed survey data or faulty NHS trends, two factors that led one of the study’s skeptics to deem it “the worst piece of activist-driven quackery in a journal this year,” researchers have established a monocausal reason for the reduced growth of London’s overweight population: no more ads.
Lest Americans comfort themselves in the belief that it can’t happen here, activists are already laying the groundwork to import this British initiative. In that effort, they’re wielding the most effective weapon in their arsenal: the faddish phenomenon of “equity.”
A study published last year by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health at the University of Connecticut determined that American food producers tend to target black and Hispanic demographics in their advertisements. The findings complement other studies, which have uncovered earth-shattering revelations such as the fact that fast food brands market children’s meals to kids and partner with celebrities popular with minority communities (and generally). The Guardian, which publicized these studies, also examined efforts to use them to lobby the Federal Trade Commission for limits on offending food advertisements.
As ever, the distinctions between the activists lobbying for commercial restrictions and the studies justifying them are blurred. As one of the Rudd Center’s directors, Frances Fleming-Milici, told Guardian reporters, no one can say they “care about these communities or about increasing equity in racial justice” without targeting the firms that are “actually hurting these communities.”
As we’ve recently seen, initiatives like these can rapidly acquire the force of a runaway train. As U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission official Richard Trumka Jr. warned in advance of his agency’s effort to “study” a prohibition on new gas stoves and ranges, “products that can’t be made safe can be banned.” It’s difficult to discern the limiting principle in such a statement. It could certainly apply to advertisements for hamburgers, which, to hear the activist class tell it, barely conceal racist and murderous intent.
Also familiar to those who watched the gas-stove-prohibition trial balloon follow the Hindenburg’s trajectory, these same voices are apt to transition seamlessly from advocating bans to mocking anyone who took them seriously the moment their ideas encounter a skeptical audience. The closed loop between monomaniacal activists and the functionaries who execute their designs fails when the loop is broken. At the very least, now you can say you saw it coming.