Childhood Obesity and Unanswered Questions

[two brothers looking at a tablet computer]

A few years ago, European countries tried something that seemed to work for a moment in time, then fell apart. Kellogg was one of the giant companies, along with Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, that made a voluntary pledge to not market unhealthful food products “to children under the age of 12 on TV, print and internet.”

In the United Kingdom, Ofcom is the agency that regulates the communication industry, and by a strange coincidence, it was right around that time when Ofcom banned the advertising of such foods on children’s TV programs. It’s easy for a company to promise not to do what it has been forbidden to do anyway. In mid-2010, Ofcom reviewed the results to see how the ban affected behavior, and found that in the time since 2007, children had watched 37% less junk food advertising.

Although the voluntary pledge covered the Internet, the Ofcom ban did not, and before too long the importance of the omission became apparent, especially when mobile devices came into wide use and were owned by more and more children. Also, officials had apparently not foreseen the massive participation by children in social media. Recently Harry Wallop looked into the matter for Britain’s Channel 4 and found that at least six junk food manufacturers used Facebook to directly engage with children. He wrote:

We created an account for a fictional child who talked excitedly about their upcoming 11th birthday on various food brand pages — no less than three brands responded positively, including Kellogg’s Krave brand of sugary cereal.

Through the power of TV publicity, Kellogg was shamed into apologizing for reaching out to an imaginary girl whose Facebook post mentioned that it was her 11th birthday. The company promised to be more vigilant in future, but this has the earmarks of a “we had to try it” strategy, like when a sleazy business double-bills the clients to see if they are paying attention because otherwise they pay that month’s fee twice.

Advertising is, of course, most effective when not readily identifiable as such. This is especially true when children are the target. An important exploration of advertising’s impact was “The Food Marketing Defense Model: Integrating Psychological Research to Protect Youth and Inform Public Policy,” published in 2009. Two of this paper’s authors were Dr. Kelly Brownell and social psychologist John A. Bargh, and the third was Dr. Jennifer Harris, director of Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University.

The necessity for such scrutiny becomes more glaringly obvious as time goes on. Harris had found in other research, for instance, that a child might spend as much as 20 minutes at a time playing a corporate “advergame” online. Many people find the idea of kids soaking up 20-minute commercials utterly unacceptable. Solutions have been proposed, and some of them tried. Sweden took the extreme measure of disallowing any television marketing aimed at children, and varying degrees of restriction are practiced in other places. But here is a problem — the need for even more studies measuring the results. The Food Marketing Defense Model says:

Discourse on the relative merit of these solutions is limited … by lack of thorough evaluation, open questions regarding how food marketing affects youth, and incorrect assumptions about how to protect them against negative influences.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food companies play games with children’s TV advertising ban,” Telegraph.co.uk, 06/12/14
Source: “The Food Marketing Defense Model: Integrating Psychological Research to Protect Youth and Inform Public Policy,” NIH.gov, 2009
Image by Neeta Lind

 

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