You are what you watch

Can a child really get fat from advertising?


No one really denies that obesity is a growing problem. In the US alone, 64% of adults are “overweight or obese” today, while 26% are classed as “obese”, according to the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, which defines obesity according to a person’s body mass index. Between 1986 and 2000, the prevalence of severe obesity quadrupled from one in two hundred Americans to one in fifty, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) contends. The CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows a dramatic shift to obesity in children between 1976 and 2000. For children aged 2-5 years, prevalence increased from 5.0% to 12.4%; for those aged 6-11 years, prevalence increased from 6.5% to 17.0%; and for those aged 12-19 years, prevalence increased from 5.0% to 17.6%. While these figures are from the US, the trend is mirrored across the globe, including developing countries.

No one really disputes this and no one really disputes the fact that illnesses such as diabetes are increasing hand in hand with obesity rates. What is more the bone of contention – brought into sharp focus by America’s recent bloody fight over healthcare reform – is what and who are to blame.

Legislators tend to blame the food industry and their arguments tend to focus on advertising. Particularly contentious in this context is the practice of advertising high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods to children. The advertising industry spends USD 12 billion a year on ads aimed at children. In 2004, the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Advertising and Children published a report calling for stricter regulation of ads for children. By and large, the task force (along with other pressure groups) is getting its way.

In January, the South Korean government became the latest authority to enact a ban. The government endorsed a bill prohibiting television advertising for foods defined as “high-calorie, low-nutrition,” between the hours of 5pm and 7pm. The government said it planned to evaluate the effectiveness of the ban in reducing child obesity rates and use the results the shape similar regulations in the future. What is particularly interesting about this story is that the South Korean government, though it enacted a ban, freely admits that the jury is out on whether advertising is to blame.

The APA asserts that children 8 years and under “lack the cognitive ability to recognize advertising’s persuasive intent”. The “growing number of young children using the Internet and watching televisions in their bedrooms, where no one is present to explain what they are viewing or reading” is also cause for concern, according to the report. The APA says that children “don’t see the exaggeration or the bias that underlies the claims”. What is more, parents “have to live with children making unreasonable purchasing requests from the advertisements they see … This can be difficult for parents to manage.”

The problem here is that the studies aiming to show the effects of advertising on children, while credible on their own terms, do little more than state in numbers the self-evident fact that advertisements are capable of persuading the viewer to want the advertised product. I am not convinced we need a scientific study to tell us this. This is the stated aim of advertising. What is not established by such studies is any causative link between the viewing by the child and the subsequent purchase and serving up by the parent. Children under eight years old are not doing the weekly shop. Children under eight are not putting food on the table. This is down to parents who, one assumes, do not “lack the cognitive ability” to make a judgment call, although one wonders.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I don’t believe there is an advertiser on earth that could manipulate, cajole or trick my child into wanting a steaming bowl of iron-rich broccoli. Serving it up anyway, in the face of tantrums, is part of being a parent. Indeed, the APA asserts that “child-directed ads for healthy foods can lose their effectiveness when children view ads for snack foods in the same sitting”. This would tend to undermine the argument that advertising is to blame, because if advertising was to blame, adverts for both healthy and less healthy foods would have an equal chance. Kids want to eat salty, sugary and fatty foods for the same reasons adults do: they taste better than broccoli and they give us an easy dopamine hit that reinforces the activity. It’s pleasurable and fun; healthy in small doses, unhealthy in excess. The concern here is that society is in danger of abdicating all personal responsibility. The weakness that advertisements aimed at children exploit is not the child’s inherent gullibility, but the parents’ apathy. As parents, why do we demand that government and industry draw the line for us?

Taking responsibility
Going after the food industry, rather than the parent, is a smart political move. It’s populist, enforceable and panders to the lazy parent’s sense of entitlement. The food industry is getting around this situation by reformulating the products. If the product no longer sets off the junk food alarm bells then the brand owner has a licence to advertise. Pepsico is the most recent big brand owner to announce initiatives to cut salt, saturated fat and sugar. Pepsico, with its deep research and development pockets, is also developing a low-sodium salt substitute, which it hopes will be available in two years. The company, which owns the Quaker and Tropicana brands, aims to triple the USD 10 billion in revenue it gets from the healthy food and drink market.

Industry bodies, too, are acting. In the last week or so, it was reported that in Australia, advertising of HFSS foods on children’s television has “virtually ceased”, following the success of the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s (AFGC) Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI). Under this industry code, in place for 12 months, 16 food and beverage manufacturers committed not to advertise to children unless they promoted healthy dietary choices and a healthy lifestyle. The code applies to all forms of media and is underpinned by a compliance program with complaints administered by the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB). Companies reformulating products under the code included Fonterra Australia, Kraft Foods Australia/New Zealand and Nestlé Australia.

This seems like a healthy, responsible and proactive response from the food industry. It shows that food manufacturers are not shying away from the question of health and wellness and are prepared to meet consumers and legislators half way by making products more healthy. But what this scheme, or any other industry code, voluntary or legislated, cannot answer is this rather sad question: why are children under eight years of age watching television alone in their rooms? And where is the voluntary code for responsible parenting?


Picture credit: winnond


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