Watch this Space: Kids, Obesity and Advertising


We’re not here to provide another article about the alarming rise of
obesity in our population. There will be minimal hand-wringing over the latest
research findings, and no dire predictions about the skyrocketing costs of
‘lifestyle illnesses’ to our society – not because these points are unimportant
or incorrect, but because we’ve heard them all before.

Instead, we will provide one organisation’s insider experience of the
obesity debate – so astutely captured on the debut episode of ABC TV’s The Hollowmen
– along with ideas for change that
are gathering strong community support.

Just last month a new research report led to wide-eyed
in the Australian media that we had in fact surpassed the
United States to clinch the title of World’s Fattest Nation. The title may be hyperbole,
but the message still stands: the problem’s bad.

So why, especially with a new Federal Government keen to better tune our
healthcare system towards preventing disease, aren’t we seeing signs of fundamental
changes to public policy, food labeling, food manufacturing and advertising
industry self-regulation?

One reason is that obesity is an intractable problem – there’s no magic
bullet. Any single intervention on its own will not cure obesity.

Playing on this is a lobby of powerful advocates with lucrative markets
to protect. They’re happy to provide motherhood statements – we all want to be
part of the solution – but when it comes to what they’re actually prepared to
do, it seems the answer is as little as possible that interferes with business
as usual.

For a taste of how invested the various stakeholders are in this debate,
browse through any number of the nearly 70 submissions
to the House of Representatives’ current obesity
– from the Advertisers’ Federation of Australia to the Coalition on
Food Advertising to Children.

As a consumer information and advocacy organisation, CHOICE is
interested in how the structure of the market can be either a help or a hindrance to consumers making healthy choices. We believe that simply blaming individuals and preaching
self-control and better parenting has not – and will
not – work when there are more powerful market forces at play.

Food manufacturers don’t malevolently plan for consumers to have
unhealthy diets. But there are market biases at work.

As the Advertising Federation of Australia argues, food has to taste
good for consumers to buy it. However, as food writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark
point out, there are strong economic incentives to process food –
it’s easier to make a profit from a banana-flavoured ‘food-like substitute’ than
from a real banana.

The promoters of unprocessed food will never be able to rival the
marketing spend of the fast food industry, which totalled $115-130
million Australia-wide in 2005-06. Campaigns such the Woolies’ Fresh Food Kids ads
are rare and relatively minor by comparison.

The advertising industry tries to play coy, insisting there’s only a
"weak link" between marketing and increased consumption of a food product. If
this were true, advertising would certainly be a spectacular waste of money.

As adults, we may prefer to believe that we’re rational, autonomous
decision-makers, immune to the charms of marketing – but what about children?

In March, CHOICE commissioned a Newspoll survey, in which eight in ten
parents reported that their children have asked them for specific foods or
drinks as a direct result of marketing – including advertisements, giveaways,
collectables and competitions, as well as the use of characters and celebrities
to promote a product.

88 per cent believe that the marketing of food to children contributes
to the difficulties parents have in promoting healthier diets.

Not all that
surprisingly, 82 per cent of Australian parents are now in favour of tighter
government restrictions over the way high fat/sugar food and drinks are
marketed to children, including 67 per cent who are "strongly in favour".

So has advertising
become a victim of its own success?

No one’s
saying that sweets, treats and fast foods shouldn’t exist – but given that one in four Australian children are now
overweight or obese, and that these children are more likely to become obese
adults – cutting the staggering glut of junk food marketing aimed at children
seems like plain commonsense, as well as a way to support parents in their

Enter the
army of corporate freedom fighters – industry heavyweights backed by outspoken
media and political commentators with lines like:

Parents just need to learn how to say "no".

No one wants a nanny state.

There’s no such thing as bad food, only bad

Lack of exercise/cultural background/working
mums are just as much to blame.

arguments never offer any useful solutions; they only succeed in muddying the
waters while reinforcing the status quo.

advertisers’ ‘rights continue to trump real concerns about children’s health,
or parents’ frustrations at having their healthy eating efforts undermined?

There’s a
growing debate in developed countries about whether advertising to children,
particularly young children, is appropriate at all.

In March, the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada
convened a national policy consensus conference on Obesity
and the Impact of Marketing on Children
. A lay panel of eight citizen
‘jurors’ heard presentations
from equal numbers of prominent health experts and senior industry

panel’s concluding statement read that:

  • "Marketing
    regulation should be only one piece of an integrated society-wide battle
    against obesity and all its many causes."
  • Canada’s practice of leaving advertising regulation
    up to industry was "insufficient and was not designed to deal with the public
    health crisis of rising rates of childhood obesity."
  • "Access
    to our children is a privilege, not a right, and as such should be subject to
    stringent regulation."

Australia, when a company such as Kellogg’s decides to voluntarily limit its
of less healthy foods to young children, it risks losing market share
to less socially responsible competitors.

A nationwide
on junk food marketing to children
under the age of 16, using a nutrient profiling
system like the one developed by Food Standards Australia New Zealand, would
not only create a level playing field; it would be a powerful new incentive for
companies to make their products healthier.

marketing is by no means the sole contributor to obesity, but it is part of the
problem. Changing the rules around marketing food to kids should be part of any
serious obesity prevention strategy.


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