Advertising to children

1st April 2004
With childhood obesity becoming epidemic in the UK, should food advertising to children be allowed to continue?

FOR: Jeremy Preston vs. Neville Rigby AGAINST

Dear Jeremy,

Before they can walk or talk, small children are exposed to a marketing barrage that may have lasting influence over their behaviour. A few years ago the former chair of the International Obesity TaskForce (IOTF) childhood working group described the case of a baby whose parents were alarmed by its agitation whenever the family passed a McDonald’s store.

It seemed that the infant already associated the familiar golden arches with the children’s party fun depicted in TV ads. Last autumn the UK’s food watchdog the Food Standards Agency published its Hastings report, which confirmed the common-sense view that advertising and marketing for food and drink can have a profound influence on children. Food advertising aimed at children primarily promotes the kind of bad diets that we know should be avoided if we seriously hope to reverse the trend of the past decade, when obesity in adolescents trebled.

Even parents are encouraged to swallow the idea that children will somehow perform better at school if they consume breakfast cereals – often branded with cartoon characters – that contain extraordinary amounts of added sugar. Their little darlings are sent off with bags full of snacks to munch through until lunchtime. In America, Congress received evidence from the US Department of Agriculture warning that children’s appetites for sugary drinks, salty snacks and other junk food, are established before they reach school age.

Hardly surprising, but whose interests are best served if a nurturing environment is exchanged for a world of hard-sell techniques designed to ‘brand’ children at earlier and earlier ages? The advertisers’ conditioning process shapes small minds, manufactures impulses, and habituates and raises expectations that sew the seeds of resentment and even family friction if parents desire their children to resist the blandishments of marketing moguls.

The issue now, is not whether marketing to children should be regulated, but how much longer we must wait before the ad and marketing consultants get on with adopting the standards some of the big global brands say they would like to follow in order to help stem the tide of child obesity.

Dear Neville,

The debate about advertising food to children is very complex. It involves questions about ethics, children’s understanding of advertising and commercial communications, and the role of marketing in free-market democracies. Obesity and diet-related diseases are also very complex issues. The growing and worrying incidence of obesity among children is a product of many factors. But basically it is due to an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended.

This imbalance encompasses all the social and cultural issues affecting dietary choices and lifestyle patterns, including availability of foods, family snacking, eating and exercise patterns, access to opportunities for physical activity, understanding of nutrition and health issues, and the changing family structure. Advertising cannot be separated from this context, and should not be used as a scapegoat for the far more fundamental and long-term action that is necessary, and which the food advertising industry wants to be actively engaged in.

The debate on advertising to children appears to be based on the assumption that children only watch commercial television. However, parents and children do have a choice of non-commercial channels, and parents and children actively exercise this choice. BBC programmes consistently top the list of children’s favourite television programmes, and over 30 per cent of all children’s viewing is of BBC channels.

This percentage is higher with pre-school children, particularly since the launch of CBeebies. During last October’s half-term period, around 50 per cent of pre-school viewing was to BBC1 and CBeebies. And to put TV advertising in context, all representations of food on television need to be taken into account. The Hastings report makes reference to earlier research by Roger Dickinson of Leicester University’s Centre for Mass Communication Research, who carried out just such a contextual study and said: ‘The programme diet did not appear to be promoting unhealthy eating… In this study fruit and vegetables were the most portrayed food category in the programmes that surrounded these advertisements.’

Furthermore, Dickinson found as many references to food were broadcast within television shows as during commercial breaks. Dickinson concluded: ‘Young people receive a more complex set of dietary information from television than the studies looking only at advertisements acknowledge.’

Dear Jeremy,

The question of marketing to children goes well beyond the issue of television advertising and even beyond the ‘product placement’ to which you appear to refer in terms of more subtle influences of behaviours depicted in general programming.

Social norms are reflected in programmes that may also influence children’s behaviour, but the example you cite shows that positive references to fruit and vegetables appear sandwiched between conflicting messages advertising junk food or soft drinks.

The difficulty is that there is nobody in the media and advertising industries who is willing to incorporate into their creative briefs the need for a greater sense of social responsibility when it comes to promoting products that contribute to bad diet.

No one is launching well-funded and long-running campaigns to persuade children or their parents to make healthier dietary choices. As Deirdre Hutton, chair of the National Consumer Council, put it: ‘We must move beyond the blame game and start giving parents real practical help. The majority of snacks aimed at children are packed with high levels of sugar, fat and salt. More than 95 per cent of food advertising on children’s TV is for foods that do little to encourage healthier diets. Supermarket check-outs are stacked with sweets and other snacks. It’s little wonder that parents often struggle against pester power.’

We need to give children a break from commercials, and ease back on the cynical strategies for imparting brand loyalty and consumer habits before they have approached the age of reason. We need to question the industry’s Trojan horse tactics for ‘educating’ children. The systematic conditioning of children through a range of media (not just television advertising) does raise ethical and moral questions, which you seem to accept.

What is worrying is that the advertising industry has yet to address the question of why – in a free democracy – children should be subjected to what is little different from a sustained brainwashing programme.

Dear Neville,

It’s interesting that the concept of a free-market democracy is seen by some as the reason for protecting children from advertising. In fact, free-market democracies cannot exist without advertising and commercial communications. In totalitarian states, where advertising is not allowed and plays no role, there is deliberate brainwashing through propaganda.

Perhaps it is because advertising funds the free press that this type of brainwashing is avoided in free- market democracies. Free-to-air commercial broadcasters in countries where regulated advertising to children is permitted (eg, the UK) devote more time to children’s programming than their equivalents in countries where it is banned or restricted (eg, Sweden). This means that restricting advertising could lead to more Jerry Springer and less Angelina Ballerina, not to mention the loss of many magazine titles of interest to children.

Also, where regulated advertising is allowed, more is invested in domestic children’s media. This allows children to have access to media originating in their own culture. I agree that advertising can play a positive role in helping to promote better health. Indeed, Hastings also says that advertising ‘could just as easily be positive as negative’.

But public education campaigns have very different objectives and targets to product advertising: the former is about persuading the public to make long-term changes in behaviour; the latter is about brand share. The government has funded many public education campaigns over the years: about seatbelts, smoking and, more recently, sexual health.

Not all have been successful. The key to success is sustaining the campaign over a period of time. With regards to children’s diet, the advertising industry would support such a campaign and could provide the expertise for creating a message that effectively reaches the target.

Dear Jeremy,

The perception that it is ‘totalitarian states’ that impose restrictions on advertising is oddly revealing. The UK has legally enforceable controls over advertising, which reflect EU regulations. Sweden prohibited advertising to children at certain viewing times as a prerequisite for the establishment of its only terrestrial commercial television channel.

Yet Swedish children are targeted daily by ‘free-to-air’ satellite broadcasting from the UK – in breach of the spirit of Sweden’s domestic laws. Some dark and dusty corners of the marketing world seem to be stuck in an 1980s ideological mind-set, supposing that free markets enshrine some inalienable right to require children to be subjected to a free-for-all scramble from advertisers. It is democratic legislation or regulation that supposes otherwise.

Although in the Land of the Free, US children have to watch adverts in school in order to see educational broadcasts, it isn’t un-American to acknowledge that making children sit through soft-drinks advertising might just persuade them to run along and get a can of the real thing from the vending machine conveniently positioned outside the classroom door.

Product advertising works. Health-promotion advertising rarely does in isolation. Government campaigns work when they are backed up by legislation; seatbelt and drink-driving campaigns are two examples of this. But the idea that all you need to do is provide ‘consumer education’ and the targeted consumer will not yield to advertising pressures has a whiff of stale tobacco about it.

It is the duty of a responsible society to try to protect children from the predations of the cigarette industry. With so many children getting fatter faster than ever before, and some developing type-two diabetes, It is dawning on many people that children can be exposed to serious health risks other than passive smoking. Shouldn’t we protect them from those risks too?

Dear Neville,

I don’t think that legally produced foods should be made illegal like drink-driving and not wearing a seatbelt, but I do think we are in agreement in many areas. Children do need a greater degree of protection from commercial messages than adults.

The question is: where do you draw the line? It would be impossible to protect children from all commercial messages, which include price promotions (which are useful to many families), corporate social-responsibility programmes and information and educational tools (which children, parents and schools often find helpful).

A more realistic approach might combine regulations ensuring responsible commercial communications with helping children to develop critical awareness of the purpose of advertising. Your view that advertising can make people buy and consume things they don’t want seems lifted out of Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders.

Things are clearly not the same today. Advertising reflects changes in society; it does not create those changes. Before products are launched meticulous research is carried out to ensure they are needed and will be purchased by the consumer. It is a mistake to think that advertising ‘push’ can succeed without consumer ‘pull’. We also agree that a simple public education campaign about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle would not work on its own; people need to have access to a wide range of foods and opportunities for physical activity, and to understand why lifestyle choices are important.

The example of Finland is well-documented: every Finnish schoolchild has a nutritious school meal and regular sessions for sport and exercise and is educated about healthy living. Dear Jeremy, I’m afraid the seatbelt argument is getting a little twisted. Controlling the marketing of junk food to children isn’t quite the same as making junk food illegal. It’s more like taking your foot off the throttle to slow things down to a safer speed so there will be fewer innocent casualties.

The case for easing up on marketing to children appears to have been accepted by both Coca-Cola and Kraft, among others. Coca-Cola has pledged not to market to under-12s, and Kraft has withdrawn marketing to children in schools. They seem to agree that something needs to be done, but then in litigious America nearly a million teenagers have acquired metabolic syndrome because of bad diet. Of course advertisers want to ‘help’ children. But perhaps it would be better if they just left teachers to get on with helping children develop a better understanding of the world they live in.

The US Department of Agriculture’s report to Congress also mentioned that when children are taught in the classroom about the value of healthy food choices but also study in an environment of vending machines, snack bars and a la carte sales offering low-nutrient options, they get the message that good nutrition is merely an academic exercise that is not supported by the school administration and which is, therefore, not important. But really who needs to defend the idea that advertising can make people buy things they don’t need or really want? Is it a clever marketing agency ploy to tell clients there will be no return on their campaigns?

Sadly, Packard was right when he said: ‘Many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realise, in the patterns of our everyday lives.’ Everyone knows this, so why do marketing and advertising people pretend otherwise? Perhaps it is because the push is now quite forceful – especially against small and vulnerable consumers, while the pull is quite different from other optional consumer choices. There is nothing more natural than consuming enticing foods.

Sugary, fatty and salty foods feed innate drives and primitive desires to store food: it used to be either feast or famine. Now it is feast every day. People really don’t need that much pushing to want to eat. Dear Neville, Your point of view seems to be slightly contradictory. On the one hand, you say that industry cynically exploits children to try to get them to eat more and develop life-long brand loyalty; on the other, you accuse it of not acting to tackle childhood obesity.

If industry were interested only in money-grabbing, then surely it would be in its interests to have long-living, healthy consumers, rather than ones that die young. Not giving children credit for understanding the commercial world much quicker and better than anyone in our own generation is wrong but understandable. There is general agreement that children are growing up quicker than they used to, and that they stay young for longer.

This is leading to a blurring of the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and is part of the reason that seeking to shield children from all commercial messages would be impossible; how do you define the ads that they would be interested in? For example, the ad children like best is for Andrex toilet paper (because of the puppy), but they are users, not buyers. And not giving adults credit for their own decisions sounds particularly patronising. As much as you might think that the right to make your own choices carries no individual responsibility and is only a product of commercial messages, most consumers relish this right and do make appropriate choices.

There is a danger of trying to prescribe universal solutions to a problem, which (though serious and growing) still only affects a minority. Indeed, social exclusion and levels of education are better determinants of obesity than exposure to TV advertising. Again, I urge you to work with others in trying to find workable effective solutions to the problem, ones that use advertising as a force for good.

Dear Jeremy,

Marketing’s Holy Grail is instant appeal and sustained brand loyalty. That’s hardly an unorthodox perception. It is clear that nothing is really being done towards tackling childhood obesity, while campaigns still target the young with slyly deceptive promotions and pop-chart product placement.

Now we see neuro-marketing reinforcing the science of hidden persuasion using medical imaging scanners to identify the brain’s responses to junk food products. It beggars belief that while some patients are stuck on waiting lists for scans, industry can spend millions using the relevant technology to peek inside the consumer’s head. It is a serious misunderstanding to dismiss childhood obesity as a minority issue.

Sixteen per cent of adolescents are now classified as obese: three times more than 10 years ago. These children’s health risks are huge. Preventing the rise of obesity is not a minority concern: it affects us all. In the UK some children are developing type-two diabetes at an alarmingly early age. In the US nearly a million teenagers are affected by the metabolic syndrome – a cluster of obesity-related disease factors.

Advertising Age has just reported the findings of a study by the US health research institute the Kaiser Family Foundation, which suggested that America’s epidemic of childhood obesity is directly related to the advertisements children are exposed to. The day before the trade magazine published its article the American Psychological Association issued a paper condemning the commercialisation of children. This is pretty much in line with the FSA’s report on marketing to children.

 Not everyone in the business is in denial. Coca-Cola says it no longer markets to the under-12s. Kraft states it isn’t really marketing to children any more. Other food manufacturers say they want to provide healthier choices even while sticking their own ‘good for you’ labels on nutrition-low calorie- high snacks. Surely, we can agree on the most important point. We must work together on finding effective solutions. Yes, advertising can become a force for good. That’s why personal responsibility is important.

From boardroom commission and agency concept to marketing campaign and media delivery, the individuals involved at every stage of the advertising process must work together to honour public commitments on corporate social responsibility. This must mean more than dishing out crumbs from the marketing budget for community programmes so as to enhance brand awareness. The real challenge is to educate and enlighten those who would manipulate consumer behaviour just so they can sell more. Are those individuals willing and able to be part of the solution?

Dear Neville,

While running the risk of repeating myself, obesity is a serious issue and we all need to play a role in tackling it. On that, we agree. What we also know about children who become overweight is that it can be predicted, to a certain extent, by the weight, level of education, ethnic origin and income of their parents.

Studies show that obese children do not actually consume more carbohydrates than normal-weight children, but they do consume more fat and do less exercise. This is why I don’t think a blanket ban on food advertising is proportionate; targeting those factors that more clearly affect weight and health would be more beneficial.

The Royal College of Physicians, the Royal Society of Medicine and the preliminary findings of Securing Good Health for the Whole Population, the report by government adviser Derek Wanless, all agree that the factors leading to obesity are complex and need more than short-term solutions. You refer to the Hastings report, which found that advertising affects knowledge, preferences and behaviours (which, at brand level, we agree with).

But Hastings also found that advertising plays only a minor role on food choice. His report said: ‘The next step, of trying to establish whether or not a link exists between food promotion and diet or obesity, is extremely difficult.’ Food advertising should not be banned – for many reasons. Banning it would not affect obesity levels: where restrictions on advertising to children have been imposed, there has been no change in the prevalence of obesity.

The evidence shows that advertising is a minor influence on what children eat; parents, siblings, friends and schools have a much more powerful influence. And while obesity levels have been increasing, expenditures on food advertising have fallen dramatically. We are not doing our children justice by trying to address obesity with ineffective, short-term solutions.

Questions of access, education, information and opportunity – both in relation to diet and physical activity – need to be considered if we are to have a real impact on the problem.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2004