Food Police

London's Absurdly Broad 'Junk Food' Ad Ban Puts Its Own Culture on a Starvation Diet

Iconic British foods like Christmas pudding and strawberries and cream get censored.

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In a fit of nanny-state pique last year, London announced it would be banning "junk food" advertising on public transportation, allegedly part of an effort to "fight obesity" by laying the blame on people selling food rather than those eating too much of it.

The ban was itself insultingly patronizing. And now, almost hilariously, it turns out that it was written so broadly that it's forbidding all kinds of food advertisements that the average person (even one with healthy eating habits) would not describe as "junk." It's also forcing the removal of representations of food on advertisements that simply use it symbolically to sell something else entirely. Apparently even the very image of a forbidden food will drive the weak-willed into helpless cravings.

The ban covers any food that's high in fat, sugar, or salt, which is a description of what you'll find in "junk food," but is also a feature of foods that are perfectly healthy to eat. The Telegraph notes that the banned food list is hitting everything from cheese to honey to olive oil to canned fruit. Bacon or butter? That's a big nope, ketogenic diets be damned.

The unintended consequences of the advertising ban reached comedic levels today, with news that London's transit system had to change several of its own ads for having a representation of a forbidden food. As The Telegraph reports, they had an advertisement promoting Wimbledon Park as a transit destination with an image of strawberries and cream, a treat that's also an iconic British dessert staple.

But not even England's love of tradition can withstand its love of telling other people how to live their lives, so the advertisement had to be changed to remove the offending snack. London Mayor Sadiq Khan endorsed the ban, and now his own agencies are discovering the impacts are extensive.

That's not all. Over at The Spectator, Christopher Snowdon, who has been criticizing the far-reaching government attempts to meddle with everybody's food choices, tracked down more absurd tales of ads by London's transit system that ran afoul of the "junk food" ban and had to be yanked and changed. The Wimbledon ad isn't the only advertisement London's own transit system had to alter. They had to remake an advertisement for their bus app because it had an image of a single cookie, which cost more than $6,000 (in U.S. dollars) to redo. A holiday ad featuring the moon dressed up to look like a Christmas pudding also had to have the cleverness removed to comply with the rules and turn back into a plain old inedible moon.

The Wimbledon strawberry dilemma was actually part of a much bigger internal advertising "problem" that Snowdon documented by getting records from London's transit system about any compliance issues. It turns out that a bunch of maps for the London Underground (the subway) intended to illustrate to tourists what they could do at each stop was full of visual representations of food and drink. Because that's what tourists do, right? But every single instance of food and drink represented on the map needed to be carefully vetted to make sure it complied with the junk food laws, and several images needed to be eliminated, even though it actually reduced the utility of the map for tourists.

Snowdon calculates that the cost incurred by the London transit system to comply with its own regulations added more than $20,000 U.S. dollars in fixes. While this seems like an unintended consequence of a poorly implemented policy, Snowdon thinks all these overly oppressive regulations are intended. He concludes:

These outcomes might be ridiculous but they are not accidental. They are what happens when fanaticism becomes normalised. This is how things are now.

That purging bus ad representations of iconic British foods is most certainly not going to fight obesity is irrelevant. The rules will be followed!