Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Why I Don't Support a Junk Food Advertising Ban for Children


It's not enough.

It's not enough for a number of reasons.

Firstly it's not enough because why should anything be advertised to a population that has been shown to not be able to discern truth from advertising? If we're talking ethics, it's plainly unethical to allow advertising to target children. Period.

Secondly it's not enough because at least one recent study suggests the possibility that advertisements for food, any food, even healthy food like fruit, paradoxically lead children to increase consumption of calories and unhealthy dietary choices.

Thirdly it's not enough because there's no agreed upon definitions for what would constitute unhealthy food. In turn not calling for a total food advertising ban at best necessitates long and drawn out discussions to try to define unhealthy and at worst, simply paralyzes the process.

Lastly it's not enough because even if a definition of "unhealthy" is agreed upon, food manufacturers will take advantage of the new definition of "unhealthy" to make products that come in one squeak better than that - and then not only continue to market them, but to market them with their newly found health halo - because after all, if they're allowed to advertise them, consumers will automatically assume that they must be "healthy".

And I'm certainly not the only one who feels this way as evidenced by a wonderful paper coming from a whole boatload of Canadian friends and colleagues from across the country. Published just last week in the Journal of Public Health Policy (and freely accessible) is a paper entitled, Restricting marketing to children: Consensus on policy interventions to address obesity where their evidence based consensus opinions include the following stronger than the recent Health Kids Panel report's recommendations:
  • A Canadian (federal) government-led national regulatory system prohibiting all commercial marketing of foods and beverages to children under 18 years of age, with exceptions for 'approved public health campaigns promoting healthy diets'
  • That regulators set minimum standards, assure monitoring of compliance, and impose penalties for non-compliance.
Importantly they also define marketing in a realistically broad sense of the term,
"We recommend adoption of a broad definition of marketing that includes, but is not limited to, all media through which children are or can be targeted, such as ‘sponsorship, product placement, sales promotion, cross-promotions using celebrities, brand mascots, or characters popular with children, Websites, packaging, point-of-purchase displays, e-mails, and text messages, philanthropic activities tied to branding opportunities, and communication through ‘viral marketing’."
So while I was thrilled to see a call targeting advertising in Monday's Healthy Kids Panel report, it's not enough, and moreover, if enacted, would be almost certainly be ineffective and potentially even harmful.

And my bet is, the food industry representatives who were full voting members of that panel - I bet they didn't raise one peep of concern when a junk food advertising ban was suggested as it was the best possible advertising recommendation they could have hoped for. I'd go even further and bet that they were even vocal champions of it during the committee meetings.

Government! Next time, by all means let the food industry come to testify in front of the next such committee and ensure their concerns are heard, but for the love of god, next time, don't give them a vote.

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  1. During a recent trip to Florida, my kids were exposed to advertising on a children's channel unlike what they have ever experienced in Canada before. There were two primary products that were advertised repeatedly. Given that we spent most of our time either at Disney or in the swimming pool, the kids weren't watching TV much while we were there. Yet, there were temper tantrums because I refused to buy a light up stuffed animal and frequent requests for a special hair brush that wouldn't hurt tangled hair. It continued for a week after we were home. It made me very glad we live in Canada where the advertising towards children is significantly less aggressive.

  2. The fact that Kelly Murumets the president of Participaction was the co-chair of the panel and Participation receives millions of dollars from Coke is a conflict of interest anyway you sip it.

  3. Anonymous9:16 am

    Here-here!! I had missed that distinction between ban on advertising directe at children - period vs ban on advertising of unhealthy food...I dont want my kids exposed to ANY advertising which is why we don't have cable. They do watch videos but as ad-free content (on dvds - skipping through promos) or from the web).Even so, it takes an incredible amount of vigilance and some web content begins with forced ads. We try to be sharp enough to turn down the volume and always explain "This is an ad. It's trying to convince you to buy stuff". We had a similar experience to above during a trip south. the impact of a few hours of exposure to aggressive marketing was astounding.

  4. Craig S.9:55 am

    Well said. The project requires action leadership and not more thought leadership as per your accurate depiction.

    Agree with Hal as well.

  5. Anonymous10:27 am

    Amen, Dr. Freedhoff. I remember my high school days (late 90's)in Illinois when we had a TV in every classroom. 15 minutes of every day were the school announcements and another ~30 were 'Kid TV news' stuffed with commercials for Pepsi-co products, pipped direct to the children while safely out of reach of the parents. My 4 year old only watches DVD's but I've lost the good fight before I ever started, the bad guys have already co-opted the system and it's no longer legal to defy them. I hope it's not to late for Canada.

  6. You strike on one important point here: what, actually, constitutes "unhealthy" eating? Any food eaten in excess amounts is unhealthy. To your body it doesn't matter one iota if your daily gallon of peanut butter is conventional or organic - it gets fat from it all the same.

    In a way, consumers have brought this upon themselves. Most never really educated themselves about nutrition and they will blindly jump for anything that is deemed healthy. That companies try to exploit that is natural.

    1. Anonymous5:54 pm

      You have good points about portion control and other causes of obesity, but children are very vulnerable population. They cannot see the bias in advertisement and believe everything they see. One study showed that children think food tastes better if it wrapped into McDonald's package. They see happy and healthy children on TV and ask their parents to buy that food.
      Of course food industry wants to create loyal customer base from early ages but they should limit their advertisement for adults only.

  7. Anonymous2:10 pm

    In Quebec there is no advertising aimed at children. All advertising is banned, not just for junk food. Should be like this everywhere.

  8. Interesting article. I work in underage drinking prevention and not surprisingly, we face these same issues with the alcohol industry marketing towards youth consumers. Like junk food, alcohol can be extremely harmful to a young person's overall health and well being, yet, legislatures' opinions are bought by the big dollar alcohol industry lobbyists. It is an uphill climb to change the way our government regulates our food, including the way it is advertised.

    I want to commend you for your passion and thoughtful approach to seeking change for not only our children, but our country. Many Americans are finally starting to change their relationship with food and we have a responsibility to help them with the process. I don't agree with the ideology that consumers have brought this upon themselves like another comment mentioned. We cannot blame the consumer for trusting their judicial system to provide them with accurate information. It starts, but doesn't end, with the way foods are advertised, marketed, and sold. I'm with you!!