Thursday, July 27, 2006

Marketing junk foods to kids

The Age today discusses the spread of disinformation about junk food by advertising agencies.

Economists routinely argue that information is a public good underprovided by markets. It is more accurate to say that, when selling products is involved, the information that is provided is inevitably unreliable. This is particularly the case with food products.

Fast food producers, and the ad agencies who promote their deceptions, are serial child abusers. Targeting kids in advertisements they get complementary benefit of custom from reluctant parents (the 'nag factor'). They also get the kiddie customers for life. (On the supply side also most employees are kids who are employed at low salaries). These firmds 'free-ride' on the national health scheme which picks up the long-term damage inflicted by poor diets.

Young children do not have great powers of discrimination and can be induced through advertising to see junk food as 'normal food' rather than an occasional snack. They do however have good powers of persuasion through the 'nag' factor and fat, sugary food that kids prefer is often a reluctant choice by a parent trying to get kids fed while doing the shopping or travelling.

As a snack such consumptions are probably OK but if they become identified as 'food' there can be serious health consequences. Consumption of such foods is linked to significant health problems of obesity and rising incidence of Type 2 diabetes. 2 million Australians have diabetes.

According to the Cancer Council NSW:
Snack and fast-food companies routinely flout guidelines on television advertising to children and deliberately encourage a junk-food culture in which children no longer know how to eat healthily, according to Australia's most comprehensive study on advertising content. Nearly a third of all television advertising is for unhealthy or non-essential foods...

The Council found that formal regulations and a voluntary industry code were blatantly ignored and no punishment was applied to advertisers who defied regulations. Giveaway toys and movie tie-ins with takeaway meals and similar products were central to many ads, even though the Children's Television Standards allow them only to be 'incidental'. There were 194 breaches of the standards in relation to food.

The findings are based on an analysis of 10,000 ads from 645 hours of television screened in Australian cities last June. Weekday ads for unhealthy foods peaked at an average of 5 an hour between 6-9pm on commercial, free-to-air channels. Nationally, 25% of advertising across all categories was for unhealthy foods. The effect was magnified by lack of promotion for healthy foods — these accounted for only 19% of total ads.

The findings will turn up the heat at today's Australian Health Ministers Conference, where the consumption of high-calorie foods is again on the agenda.

Food industry representatives will present a proposed new 'food marketing code' that would prohibit encouraging 'pester power', such as images of children putting products in supermarket trolleys, excessive eating or 'undermining the importance of healthy lifestyles'. Given their past record giving in such interest groups is akin to putting the 'cat in charge of the canary'.

Of course parents too must be educated to direct kids away from transfat-saturated unhealthy fast foods and generally unhealthy diets. Kids also probably watch too much television.

But it does seem to me that as a nation we are acquiriung unhealthy eating habits. Chips, pizza and meat pies have become 'lunch' for many people these days. Commercial interests foster such consumptions leaving the public health system to pick up the trail of damage in terms of cardiovascular disease and the ugly complications of diabetes such as kidney problems, blindness and limb amputations.

Is it sensible to allow deceptive marketing of dangerous food products during the afternoon and early evening hours that kids watch TV? Indeed why should society promote sales of such crap at any time?


Jason Soon said...

Gee Harry,
when I was a kid, I didn't always get what I want. Times must've changed.

hc said...

Jason, I did mention the role of parental responsibility and it is true. But as an experienced parent let me assure you, it can be difficult.

Tanya said...

Like you, I'm more worried about kids than adults. The latter can make up their own minds. The former are terribly cognitively and socially vulnerable to this sort of advertising. Taking a liberal attitude to some advertising is fine when we are talking about reasonably developed individuals but all the evidence points to kids simply not being developed – they’re kids, right??

I do agree with Jason that kids don't have to be (in fact, shouldn't be) given everything they want but wonder if the level and sophistication of advertising pressure he faced was similar to the level and sophistication that children (and parents) face today.

What do you think about stricter regulation such as the restriction of advertising of any kind that is aimed at children – as I understand is the case in Sweeden? (correct me if I'm wrong on that)

Tanya said...

Oops, Sweden not Sweeden.

FXH said...

harry - you mention that chips, pies and pizza are lunch food. I think you are out of touch.

I was shocked when I did a stint on a school council to discover that kids ate potatoe crisps and coke for breakfast, if they had any, and the same, say twisties with chocolate bars etc for lunch.

Pies and pizza and chips would be a step up for some people.

I only realised the other day in the supermarket that there are more aisles for softdrink and packet crisps type stuff (and pet food) than there are food aisles.

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