The HFSS future and its impact on all brands

Oonagh Rusling, Account Manager


The pandemic has increased the pressure on government to take action to solve the UK’s obesity crisis.

Overweight patients were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and, with no school or playtime, childhood obesity also increased. One of the solutions the government has now confirmed is to increase restrictions on HFSS products in advertising.

HFSS stands for High Fat, Sugar and Salt and refers to food which has been nutritionally profiled as unhealthy. This profiling system was developed in 2004 for Ofcom to regulate food advertising to children. It includes the obvious; crisps, sweets and chocolate but also some you might not think unhealthy such as yoghurts, cereals and cooking sauces.

Current restrictions on TV are that if a programme has above a certain percentage of children as share of audience then HFSS products cannot advertise. In January 2023 this will change to a complete ban on online advertising of HFSS products, and a ban on any HFSS products pre-9pm on TV and VOD.

The media and advertising industry have reacted with concern to the new restrictions; the Advertising Association has stated that the current rules on HFSS are proportionate, effective and evidence-based compared to the new limitations which harm brands and media owners with minimal evidence of likely reduction in obesity. In fact, research commissioned by the government themselves has shown that a 9pm watershed on HFSS advertising will reduce a child’s calorie intake by merely 1.7 calories each day, the equivalent of ½ a Smartie.



Brands which fall under the HFSS category will clearly be most affected; their TV campaigns will have to run on average 2 weeks longer or invest 50% more budget to achieve the same level of reach. Alternatively they will need to switch to branding campaigns without products or use one of their non-HFSS products to rely on the halo effect of advertising the brand.

If you think not being a HFSS brand-owner means it won’t affect you, then think again; an increase in time-specified campaigns post 9pm means high demand in this daypart far exceeding the supply of impacts thus making the TV market as a whole significantly more expensive. Any brand wanting to run in the most premium programming and target the harder to reach, lighter viewing audiences will have to pay over and above. Meaning more difficult negotiations for TV buyers as saleshouses add premiums to the best programming.

With the new restrictions set to come into play in early 2023 there are a number of brands who will be using 2022 to go huge on their ad campaigns before being stung by the increase in prices and limitations on creative. Smaller brands may well be costed out of the market altogether.

Whilst a long-term approach to reducing obesity is unquestionably needed, the advertising and marketing industry is wondering if this is a headline-friendly solution with limited impact which is far easier than dealing with the more complex, socio-economic and societal causes of obesity in the UK.