Television Junk Food Advertising Aimed at Children
Around one third of children in this region are of unhealthy weight and one of the key reasons for this appears to be the influence of junk food ads on the telly. There are a number of established relationships between television watching and food behaviour and this relationship has been the subject of much research in Australia and internationally. Watching television is itself is a sedentary behaviour but television watching has also been shown to lead to less healthy diets. For children, a combination of lazing in front of the television, eating snack foods and the influence of junk food advertising creates a major problem.
A decade ago, Australia had the highest number of food advertisements per hour compared with other developed countries, and the significant majority (around 80%) of adverts were for low nutrient, high energy products. Put a different way - the average kid was exposed to more than 160 ads per day for unhealthy food.
Younger children are particularly vulnerable to junk food advertising because they do not discern messages as fact, fiction or fantasy and so invest a good deal of implicit trust in whatever they see in any advertised messages. This changes by the early teens and as they become more cynical of advertisements and less likely to ask for things they have seen on tv than their younger siblings or friends.
Advertising clearly works and food advertising to kids seems to be particularly effective. The most common type of food advertised is junk food and the only thing advertised more often is toys during the Christmas period. These ads have been shown to have little effect on what kids understand to be a healthy diet but conversely fizzy drink which includes fruit in the title is understood by most kids to be a healthy choice.
The UK Government have placed a ban on the placement of foods, alcohol and drinks high in fat, salt or sugar on children’s television programs. Restrictions are targeted at food and drink products rated as high in fat, salt or sugar. Healthier food or drinks may be advertised without scheduling restrictions, giving an incentive to manufacturers to reformulate existing products to be healthier, or to develop new products which are low in fat, salt or sugar.
These restrictions were put in place because of the enormous increase in childhood obesity and the clear role that advertising of junk food has played in this change. Australia has taken a passive compliance approach to the problem whereby a number of food and beverage manufacturers have now signed up to the Australian Food and Grocery Council’s Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative.
The companies have publicly committed not to advertise to children under the age of 12 unless the product promotes healthy dietary choices and a healthy lifestyle. There is a strong drive to follow the UK’s lead with tougher food advert laws. For parents whose kids watch commercial TV (and whose don’t?) it is important maintain an alternative dialogue with children about what constitutes a healthy diet and encourage critique of food advertising on the grounds of the healthfulness of the foods advertised.