Should fat ads be banned?

Until a few weeks ago no one knew who Kenneth Tong was. Despite an unforgetable four week stint on Big Brother (he was thrown off) Ken was just another Joe. A baby faced, self declared sociopath with lots of family money and little to do at 27. Until he started Twittering comments about anorexia and size zero (though who knows who was really listening).

His comments outraged a few, the media publicity started and quickly others commented on him, from Rihanna and Katy Perry to Gordon Ramsey and Lily Allen. Overnight Tong has become a celebrity (those these days becoming a celebrity is all too easy) and the most discussed (if not disgusting) person on Twitter.

Though for 99% of the population, we probably only heard about it via the newspapers. Which is actually how most successful social networking seems to really work, an extension of PR

I’m not great fan of Twitter as most of it is mindless chatter, and I have yet to be convinced of its real marketing potential over the hype and sales talk from those with a vested interest. I can think of 20 better ways to sell.

Most of us are probably aware what Tong tweeted, ‘women should get thin or die trying’, ‘hunger hurts but starving works’ and ‘you have eaten enough for a lifetime, stop, you are disgusting.’ These may seem the words of someone who may have drunk one too many but comments like ‘all women should become managed anorexics’ started a debate about the danger of encouraging such actions. Ironically, Tong has picked up over 10,000 young girls on his Twitter.

Although Tong seems to be reveling in his new found publicity he has now declared it was all a joke. Umm, strange sense of humour! But some people have pointed out that maybe Tong has done some good through his ‘fat people are disgusting’ seem a little personal.

Every year eating disorders effect many people, especially girls. It’s classified as a mental condition, whereas over eating is just seen as the outcome of a wealthy, over indulgent society.

In a week when Tong is hitting headlines the NHS have released a press statement that obese people will bankrupt the NHS within 10 years.

It is now one of the leading cause of preventable deaths in the UK and the world, far more people die from over weight than under weight. Over 100,000 hospital admissions a year are obesity related. Over 6,000 weight loss operations are performed a year, shockingly over a million people need one. The fattest man in the UK, Paul Mason, costs the tax payer over £1.5m, to look after. Ironically, he’s now trying to sue the NHS for not solving his obesity – proving the first rule of fat people, they don’t take responsibility for themselves. Mason eats 20,000 calories a day and weighed at one point over 1000 lbs. Which begs the question, when you are too fat to get out of a chair, who’s feeding you that much food?

We are becoming a nation of fat bastards so maybe Tong’s comments are at the right time to start the debate. Would actually all be healthier if we tried to be size zero rather than size XXL?

The ‘Change 4 Life’ campaign was apparently a flop, despite millions of pounds of tax payers money being spent on it. So should the government stop being a nanny state and pass the responsibility over to consumers?

But one of the biggest discussions is the marketing of unhealthy foods – high in fats, sugars and carbs. Should high calorie products be banned from advertising? Should it carry a health warning? Should Coke only be allowed to only market Zero and Light and banned from featuring the high sugar version? What about fast foods like KFC, or snacks products, biscuits, and the many other unhealthy products we buy in the supermarket? Should we have a fat tax? Should good healthy low fat healthy products be given tax advantages?

There are many questions but what is certain is that unless we do something now, Britain will get fatter and more people will suffer and die. So maybe Tong is right, we have eaten enough for a lifetime, we need to stop, we are fat , we are disgusting.


  • Paul Treleaven

    To ban, or not to ban?
    Well, I have to be honest and say we (as a society) don’t seem particularly good at self-regulating. We are getting fatter. We are more sedentary. We do point the finger at others for our problems (my genes are responsible, the school canteen, advertisers, the manufacturers, the NHS…) rather than admit we are part of the problem. Let’s be honest… we do get angry and defensive when our own particular harmful addiction is threatened.
    Speaking for myself, I can’t ever say an advert ‘made’ me buy that coca-cola, chocolate bar or Big Mac but it certainly never made me think ‘bad’ of having it. Was I ever given the facts of the food I was pushed to eat? Of course not, it was all happy times and rainbows. And for me that’s where the main problem lies.
    As such I would argue for a partial, more intelligent ban, and not a ‘full ban’ (and before everyone cries that I support a nanny state – all I want is to be given the full facts about the food in the ads I am seeing so I can make a rational decision ‘before’ the addictive effects of junk food hit me).
    Ads for junk foods should simply not be shown during children/teenager TV shows, at schools and at shops near schools, etc – and where they are shown they should always have a health warning (as you get with cigarettes and alcohol) on the dangers of ‘over’ eating fatty foods.
    In fact, I would be happy to see an “Eat This Food in Moderation and Always Exercise” health warning on all such foods.
    Ultimately, before we enact bans and ‘fat taxes’ we need a better and more encompassing effort to educate children (by government, industry and schools – and parents!!!) on the dangers of poor eating and lack of exercise, while limiting the easy access to such foods by children.
    As advertisers, we should definitely consider ways to promote such foods while pushing the message that you shouldn’t over do it. Would that be wrong?

  • Dr H.Richards

    Maybe my groundbreaking, surgical procedure for transferring the fats of obese westerners into those in the Third World as part of a fat redistribution initiative would add some positives to the issue of fat filled products?

  • Ramzi Yakob

    Maybe we should have a little respect for people’s ability to make decisions for themselves and show a bit of restraint with regards to creating a nanny state. I would agree to a certain extent that junk food ads should be banned around children’s content as it is reasonable to assume that they’re impressionable, however for the rest of the populous – if you’re too stupid to understand eating junk food will make you fat, then you deserve any obesity you find.

    It’s called natural selection.

  • daniel sturman

    Any discourse, even rhetoric, when deliberately aimed at minors is always delicate and potentially dangerous, and may very well call for freedom of speech limitations.

    I have one question regarding how this obscurantist character; who was the first person to retweet him? Who was the second? Why did the over-personal Johann Harri agree to interview him?

    Lets not become nervous woolly liberals here, obesity and its related issues will be the biggest health problem in the future and could very well break the NHS.

    We have a state health care system that can only exist, like a microcosm of society as a whole, if we take on some responsibility ourselves.

    While we live in a free society where one can do whatever they want, when we behave in ways that are irresponsible and negligent and after all knowing, that can be considered sabotaging our social institutions.

    Stealing from public libraries, suing councils, sponging off welfare are all looked down upon because they steal from all of us, and so should gluttony-related obesity*.

    *As opposed to weight-gain related illnesses.

  • Grilla Login

    Chris, the growing incidence of both child and adult obesity is just a symptom of a wider [or should that b a fatter] problem: human over-consumption of basically everything they can get their greedy digits on. Is it any surprise that no one wants the job of being a seat on the metro, bus or toilet any more?

  • Sue Turner

    I read Jonathan Harari’s piece on this in The Times and was, for once, dumb-struck. So well done that journo for printing what he said and ignoring his pathetic attempts at backtracking. What a sad, spoilt, ignorant f*ck he is.

  • Mike Stroud

    On the drink-driving question, it’s a matter of quality.  Those ads on TV with the barman going through the complete “lifecycle” of consequences is compelling, engaging and thought-provoking. It is brilliant and I would be amazed if it didn’t have a positive effect.

    Similarly, the suggestion that “‘nudging’ can too easily become nagging” also comes down to quality.  The case studies in Thaler & Sunstein’s book where nudging has been effective would not have been seen as nagging. The whole point of the nudge is that it’s barely noticeable.  The biggest mistake the UK government made in this respect was to tell everyone it was going to start nudging them!  Completely defeats the object of the exercise.

  • Phil Barden

    ‘To get people to the brink of wanting to undertake serious behavioural change requires highly emotional and motivating messaging’

    Sorry Tess but I don’t think you understand nudging! Read the success stories of the Govt’s ‘nudge’ unit in public policy. Very simple interventions, often at zero/low cost, can change behaviour by triggering heuristics (implicit decision-making ‘rules’). There are dozens of studies on this now (and we have client case studies too) that prove that you can change behaviour without changing minds/attitudes (and there is evidence that behaviour change precedes attitude change).

    ‘only when other communications and marketing have created strong desire, taking people to the brink of purchase/action, and it works best for high-interest, pleasure, luxury categories’

    What’s your evidence for this? Read Wansink on changing something as basic as students’ eating habits in a canteen. All done by nudges.


      Maybe I don’t understand it as well as you, Phil. The student canteen example is not, I think, a representative one because the emotional communication around diet and food choice is happening daily at an almost deafening level, mainly through editorial coverage. I didn’t say the emotional communication had to be advertising. Against that backdrop, behavioural nudging plays its proper role. The point the blog makes is that the government rejected paid-for advertising as one vital component in the mix, when most marketers know it’s about using these disciplines together. The results are all too evident.


      …but should have added that I totally buy into implicit marketing and heuristics. TV advertising works mostly at that level. You might be interested to read our own studies using neuroscience and implicit attitude testing that you’ll find in the research section at