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Pester power: why junk food ads and children shouldn’t mix

Restricting junk food is just one element in reducing obesity.

Junk food is one of the mainstays of food advertising to children, who form the key market for junk food advertisers.

Some of the more concerning marketing tactics are the ones that play on children’s desire to be popular. This is something advertisers are supposed to avoid but they clearly still resort to this tactic.

They imply certain cereal bars will make you more popular, that it’s much cooler to throw away fresh fruit and instead eat a processed product.

Children’s and adolescents’ interest in sportspeople, musicians, cartoon characters and superheroes has been relied on by advertisers for a long time.

It continues to be the linchpin of most advertising directed at children.

Then there’s the use of toys and giveaways such as those you receive upon purchase of McDonald’s “Happy Meals”.

How pervasive is children’s pester power?

It’s always very difficult to separate the numerous factors that impact on parents’ purchasing behaviour.

We know that children pester their parents about buying junk food and that being exposed to junk food advertising makes them agitate for these products more often. We have very clear evidence about that.

But I don’t really think we need a huge amount of scientific evidence about the influence of pester power on parents – ask any parent and they’ll give you a pretty strong answer.

Or just observe a supermarket queue and see the struggles that occur between children and their parents.

Some studies have tried to separate out the various influences on the purchasing behaviour of adults. Of course, adults would like to believe that they don’t concede to their children’s wishes but it’s inevitable.

Restrictions on junk food advertising would have an immediate and profound effect on this pester power.

Are junk food advertising restrictions likely to reduce childhood obesity rates?

That’s a little more difficult to tease out. As most people are aware, and as the food industry repeats quite often, obesity has a very complex genesis.

Clearly, marketing is not the only issue in this area so banning junk food advertising alone would probably only have a small immediate effect but a larger, long term indirect impact on obesity rates.

What we do know is that a ban on marketing on food advertisements to children would enable parents to take a much more proactive approach in controlling what their children eat, helping to ensure important changes in their overall diet.

It would also send a very strong signal that the government believes that this is a serious issue worthy of intervention on.

That’s not a message that’s coming out at the moment.

It’s not a message that is going to the food industry; it’s not a message that is going to the community, and neither is it going to the other organisations within the community that need to come together to act on this issue. Thus there is no imperative for anyone to act on this issue.

What impact it will have on obesity is the wrong question because it’s only a part of the solution – it’s part of a broad program of actions, which any public health initiative needs to demonstrate.

Everyone should get a message from this and it would provide immediate relief for parents who are struggling with the issue of pester power.

What have we learnt about junk food advertising restrictions elsewhere in the world?

Many people question the effects of the advertising bans imposed in Sweden and Quebec. However, the real example to examine is what happened in the United Kingdom when advertising restrictions were put in place during children’s viewing times, which is at the core of the Obesity Policy Coalition’s (OPC) blueprint.

The OPC’s recommendations go much further in addressing marketing through other media.

What we’ve seen from the UK Ofcom regulations is firstly that it is possible to restrict junk food advertising during children’s viewing times. That it’s possible to define healthy and unhealthy food.

We know it’s possible to set restrictions – to define hours in which these advertisements can and can’t be shown.

And the world doesn’t fall apart.

The advertising industry doesn’t go out of business. In fact, in the UK, it didn’t even lose money. And the food industry didn’t lose huge market shares.

Advertising slots are still filled.

What other changes do we need to see?

There’s a whole range of policy, structural, environmental issues, which also need to be addressed along with marketing.

These range from the pricing of foods - for example, low fat milk is more expensive than regular milk - to availability - food from vending machines is the only option in some buildings.

On the other side of the equation, we have a society that is still very much dominated by the car and promotes sitting and sedentary leisure time pursuits. There are a whole range of issues that we have to address as a society.

It’s not just up to government, it’s up to society to address these.

All this doesn’t relinquish the responsibility of the parents to take positive control of their children’s food and physical activity behaviours.

Parents need to act as models as well. It’s not much good telling kids “don’t eat this” or “go out and do some exercise” if they’re not doing it themselves.

They need to have the education and understanding of what’s there, what’s good and what’s not. Clear labelling of foods is also an important aspect of this issue.

Will banning the sale of chocolates in school fundraisers really make much of a difference?

The straight answer, if you’re looking at it from an isolated perspective, is no. It’s not going to have a huge impact.

But if you look at it from the perspective of creating a culture, creating an understanding of what needs to be done, then yes.

It is important because at the moment we send very mixed messages to children. It’s not much good telling them - and their parents - “don’t eat chocolates and confectionery” while at the same time sending home large boxes of chocolates for kids to sell.

Kids eating these chocolates occasionally is not necessarily the problem, it’s the message they get and how it contributes to their understanding of an appropriate approach to sensible eating.

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