Junk the ads?

This is an article by Sadie Edwards.
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Sadie Edwards wonders whether it’s fair to blame obesity on advertising.

There is no denying that in Britain today obesity is now at crisis level and something drastic needs to happen in order to prevent it from worsening. But is banning advertising junk food to children really the magic solution?

Currently, one in every three children is overweight or obese and the number is sharply rising. As a former chair of the Foods Standards Agency has warned, for the first time in over a century life expectancy may fall and parents may begin to outlive their children.

freeimages.co.uk food images But can this really be blamed on junk food advertising, hypnotising children into buying their products? Or is it instead a more intrinsic deep-rooted problem within our society? While it is true to say that children could be easily swayed by clever marketing, how would you explain the growth in adult waistlines?

This current epidemic has resulted in a public and press backlash against junk food and fast food suppliers, witness Morgan Spurlock’s ‘Supersize Me’ and the popular television series ‘Jamie’s School Dinners’. Jamie Oliver demonstrated the lack of nutritional awareness, with many children unable to tell a cauliflower from a cabbage.

According to research gathered in 2006 by the independent body Which? Nearly 9 out of 10 parents in Britain thought that food companies needed to be more responsible in the way that they market food to children.

McDonald’s, for example, enlists many marketing techniques to entice children into buying its products and making its restaurants child-friendly places to be (with the offer of free toys).

This manipulation was highlighted in the 1997 McLibel case. Although McDonald’s won the case, it damaged their reputation. David Green (McDonald’s head of marketing at the time) admitted to targeting children since ‘children are virgin ground as far as marketing is concerned’.

A study conducted at the University of Liverpool found that children who watch junk food adverts on television would increase their food intake as a result. The study involved 60 children of different weights between the ages of 9 and 11 being shown a series of food adverts and toy adverts followed by a cartoon. The results showed that children ate a much larger amount of food after a food advert rather than a toy one, with obese and overweight children more than doubling their food intake.

One organisation that wants to tackle this problem is Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming. Lobbying in favour of a change to the law is Sustain’s campaign co-ordinator Richard Watts. He also campaigns for clearer food labelling; better quality food in school and ensuring every child is taught how to cook. ‘The government should end junk food television and advertising before 9pm, as the first step in a longer campaign to change our food culture and create healthier diets’, he argues. This idea is supported by the Food Standards Agency, the advisory committee for Ofcom as well as a whole host of celebrities including, Anthony Worrall Thompson, Sarah Beeny and Trisha Goddard.

The campaign is being supported by approximately 300 organisations, including the British Heart Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. One of the main aims of the campaign is to protect children from junk food advertising and in particular from companies who admit that they specifically target children as part of their marketing strategy. So it would seem that many people agree that junk food advertising is a big factor in the current obesity situation.

In order to maintain this pressure on the government Sustain regularly issues press releases and information detailing research into junk food advertising and obesity. It also has, on its website, a draft letter people can sign and send to their MP.

In response to all this pressure, the government challenged Ofcom to tighten its regulations for food marketed to children. These regulations are currently in place and ban adverts for food such as burgers, chocolate bars and fizzy drinks being shown during television programmes aimed at young people under the age of 16. However the Children’s Food Campaign does not believe this to be enough. This is because much of the television viewed by children is not classed as children’s television and will therefore not be affected by the ban, for example ‘Ant and Dec Saturday night takeaway’ and the ‘The X Factor’. The ban also fails to take into account the latest methods utilised by fast food companies such as texting, websites and packaging.

This issue is a very contentious one, with many people having an opinion on what is best for our children. All this is happening at a time when the very subject of lobbying itself is under debate, with Spinwatch talking to the select committee concerning the future of lobbying. The organisation says that lobbying continues to be ‘shrouded in mystery’. It argues that the industry’s efforts to regulate itself have failed.

Records obtained by Sustain show that Ofcom was lobbied 29 times by the food and advertising industry before putting together its plans. Mary Creagh, MP for Wakefield said ‘I am disappointed by Ofcom’s lack of consultation with health and consumer campaigners. They have ruled out a 9pm watershed which is the only way to stop junk food advertising to children and tackle the time bomb of childhood obesity’. When asked about the meetings, Kate Stross, a representative of Ofcom said ‘there are a lot of players in the industry and we say yes if they want to see us. Consumer groups tended to come to see us together.’

Channel Four, ITV and channel 5 all strongly opposed the ban claiming that they need the funding produced by advertising to run the channel and make the programmes on it. When queried in relation to the 9pm proposals, Kate Stross said ‘the cost to broadcasters of a ban on such advertising pre-watershed would be very high indeed. We came to the view that it would be disproportionate. It has been estimated that a ban on junk food and drinking advertising before 9pm would cost broadcasters up to 240 million a year’.

So it would appear as though neither side of the argument has succeeded in fully achieving their objectives, with no full ban on child advertising until 9pm or any ban on other mediums but with still a ban in place.

However, with the ever-increasing momentum of the campaigns and the ever-increasing waistband of the average Briton, the government will not be able to turn a blind eye on the situation for much longer and unless a solution to the current obesity problem in this country is quickly found people will continue desperately trying to find someone to blame.

Image credit: www.freeimages.co.uk

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