There you are after a long day at work and a strenuous workout at your gym, and you come home and turn on your TV. As you flip the channel, BAM, it hits you – the high octane heart-pumping commercial for [insert junk food name here]. And suddenly all you can think of eating for dinner is that identical diet-busting meal. Despite good intentions, it can sometimes be difficult to ignore the power of suggestion that savvy marketing campaigns utilize to bombard us with images of unhealthy foods.
If such temptations are difficult for adults to resist, one can only imagine how much more effective such advertising is in promoting unhealthy eating habits in impressionable children and adolescents. In fact, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health reports a significant correlation between children's BMIs and total hours of viewing TV advertising.1 After correcting for various factors including the amount of physical activity and the children's gender, age, race/ethnicity, mother's body mass index (BMI), education and sleep time, this study found that it is not the total hours of TV viewing, but rather the total hours of watching commercials that was significantly correlated with increased BMI in children. Earlier studies have also suggested similar correlations between commercial viewing and increased caloric intake in children.2
According to a 2008 Federal Trade Commission report, $9.6 billion was spent on food and beverage marketing in 2007 alone, of which nearly 20% was aimed at marketing targeted towards children and adolescents.3 This does not include other modes of advertising such as print and online ads, as well as marketing through video games. Television only represents about half of spending on food marketing to children in the US, and marketers are increasingly utilizing other channels of advertising as well as cross-marketing campaigns in order to reach their impressionable consumers.3, 6
With the nation increasingly worried about the threat of pediatric obesity, this begs the question of whether commercials for low-nutrient content foods ought to be banned from TV, at least during programs targeted towards younger audiences. In fact, several countries including Sweden, Norway, Finland and the UK have already enacted and expanded laws that ban the advertising of junk foods during programs targeted at children. While it is too soon to tell if these laws are directly affecting health outcomes, it certainly seems like a step in the right direction in combating the increasing rates of childhood obesity.
The argument of “personal responsibility” was long cited as a counter-argument to calls for increased oversight on junk-food advertising. While in theory personal responsibility makes sense, I wonder if it is practically possible to change a young kid's mind when Spongebob Squarepants is goading them on to consume an extra large order of something deep-fried. Therefore, apparently motivated by the threat of negative public attitudes and imminent legislative intervention, the food industry in this country has issued several pledges in the name of self-regulation. In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) launched the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, with a goal of shifting the advertising targeting children to include more messages of healthful eating and lifestyle habits.4 The 15 companies that are voluntarily participating under this initiative have pledged to devote at least 50% of their advertising to children under 12 to promoting healthier food and lifestyle choices. In addition, they have agreed to “reduce or eliminate” the use of third-party-licensed characters to advertise unhealthy foods and eliminate food/beverage advertising in elementary schools.
However, whether or not such self-regulation can be an alternative to formal third-party oversight remains to be determined. Sharma et al. argue that self-regulation efforts within other industries whose products have demonstrable links to overall health (notably the tobacco and alcohol industries) provide important insight into what works and what doesn't in terms of industry self-regulation.5 They propose a set of standards aimed at increasing transparency, accountability and oversight, that must be met if self-regulation is to be a viable alternative to government oversight.5
With healthcare inarguably at the forefront of everyone's minds and Congress starting to work towards reauthorizing child nutrition programs, it seems like an ideal moment for a renewed national debate on the topic of regulation of food advertising.