This post was also written by Milan Joshi.

Sky One, a UK satellite channel that broadcasts “The Simpsons,” has been told that the sponsorship of the programme by Domino’s Pizza, a leading UK pizza delivery company, breaches sponsorship rules, despite the fact that no products that were high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) were shown in the credits.

Ofcom, the UK media watchdog, published rules in February 2007 concerning advertisements of HFSS foods to under-16s.

The National Heart Forum (NHF), an alliance of more than 60 UK organisations working to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and related conditions, contacted Ofcom regarding Domino’s Pizza’s sponsorship of “The Simpsons.” The NHF complained that Domino’s Pizza “appears to be avoiding the restriction on HFSS advertising or sponsorship by simply not showing the pizza product during the sponsor’s credits around the programme.”

In response to the complaint, Ofcom requested a recording of “The Simpsons” from Jan. 30, 2008. This consisted of four recordings, back-to-back, between 19:00 and 21:00, with each episode containing four sponsorship credits. The credits featured one or more of the following – at least one person involved in the pizza order/delivery process, the sponsor’s pizza packaging, the pizza case preparation and the sprinkling of pizza topping ingredients. The closing image contained the Domino’s Pizza logo and the words “Domino’s Delivery Service,” followed by the website details and order telephone number. Each credit ended with a voice-over stating: “‘The Simpsons’ on Sky One with Domino’s – the pizza delivery experts.”

Sky replied that “adults comprise around 72% of a typical Simpsons audience.” Further, the broadcaster added that 47 percent of Domino’s Pizza’s pizza products are non-HFSS and that none of the credits showed an HFSS product. Sky also stated that “the specific service being advertised is the Domino’s delivery service and, in particular, the pizza delivery service,” and that the sponsorship credits targeted adults, not children. Sky referred to Ofcom’s press release that stated: “…there is no prohibition on brand advertising by companies whose portfolios include HFSS food or drink products – goods which, unlike tobacco and alcohol, can legally be sold to children.”

Ofcom considered three questions. First, whether “The Simpsons” was likely to appeal particularly to audiences under the age of 16. In the period examined by Ofcom, the actual audience that was under 16 was 81 percent higher than the average expected for a multi-channel audience. Therefore, Ofcom concluded that the programme attracts a significant child audience during its broadcast time.

Second, whether the sponsorship credits promote a brand or a product and/or service. Ofcom believed in this case that the sponsorship credits promoted more than just a brand name. In Ofcom’s view, the audience watching these credits would reasonably believe the sponsorship directly related to the supply of the sponsor’s pizza product as opposed to its other products.

Third, whether the credits promoted an HFSS or non-HFSS product. Sky’s own evidence showed that 47 percent of Domino’s Pizza range were non-HFSS. Therefore, more than half were HFSS. Ofcom agreed that Domino’s Pizza delivers more than just HFSS pizza, but the sponsorship credits in this case did not refer to the delivery of any products other than pizza. Accordingly, in Ofcom’s view, the sponsorship credits promoted HFSS products.

Ofcom concluded that this particular sponsorship amounted to product sponsorship that promoted HFSS foods in programmes of particular appeal to children under the age of 16. The sponsorship was therefore in breach of the following rules:

4.2.1(b) of the BCAP Rules on the Scheduling of Television Advertisements

  • The following may not be advertised in or adjacent to children’s programmes or programmes commissioned for, principally directed at or likely to appeal particularly to audiences below the age 16:

(vi) food or drink products that are assessed as high in fat, salt or sugar in accordance with the nutrient profiling scheme published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on 6 December 2005.

Rule 9.3 of the Broadcasting Code

  • Sponsorship on radio and television must comply with both the advertising content and scheduling rules that apply to that medium.

Why this matters: Prior to the implementation of the Ofcom rules on HFSS foods, pressure groups had raised a concern that advertisers would try to get around the rules by advertising brands instead of the HFSS products themselves. Although this ruling may not close the door on advertising brands related to HFSS products around programming that is attractive to children, it does make it clear that where the brand name is closely linked to a particular product, it may be difficult to avoid falling foul of the rules. This ruling also makes it clear that advertisers will not be able to avoid the rules by simply keeping the HFSS product out of the shot.