Greetings! Hope you are enjoying your summer so far. In this week’s Five for Fridays, I want to focus on food advertising to kids. Many people believe that food advertising, especially on TV during children’s programming, plays a big role in influencing food choices and brand awareness among young kids. Some experts go on to linking such advertising to overweight and obesity in children and suggest we should put a ban on advertising during children’s programming. However, as I wrote in my article Ban TV Food Advertising to Reduce Childhood Obesity – Really?, there is little evidence to support the link between TV advertising and childhood obesity. Sure, there is a lot of passion and strong opinions about the effect of TV advertising on kids, but there is not much data.
In this article I want to first explain why I am against the banning food advertising to kids even though I am dead against junk food and fully agree with its impact on our health problems. Then I want to offer a few suggestions on how to reduce the influence of TV advertising so that the marketers are forced to change their message.
Here are a few reasons for my opposition to the notion of banning TV food advertising:
- It goes against the idea of freedom and personal choice – just the way consumers have a right to choose what they want to buy, food marketers are also entitled to promoting their products. Unless, of course, there are proven health risks of high degree and regulations are adopted to control public promotion. I don’t believe food advertising can be considered in the same way as tobacco advertising, at least for now.
- Banning specific advertising is discriminatory – some may say that promotion of unhealthy food products should be restricted. That means some other type of food products may be allowed freely. This is like saying ban the ads for cars with low safety rating and allow only certain types of cars to be advertised. Who draws the line between the so-called unhealthy foods and healthy foods from advertising point of view?
- TV is not the only channel for food advertising – the fact is that there is a declining trend in watching advertising on TV. Other channels like internet, mobile phones, printed media and in-store advertising are becoming more popular with advertisers. To what extent should we ban food advertising?
- Banning unhealthy food advertising does nothing to promote healthy foods and eating habits – Even if a ban on the so called unhealthy food products is implemented, it does nothing to promote healthy foods and eating habits. The focus should be on the positive, not on the negative. Why not invest in a public awareness campaign to counterbalance the current advertising? Are we so afraid to go head-to-head against the clever food marketers?
- Banning TV food ads does not reduce the duration of TV watching – say we have no food advertising on TV anymore. It does not mean that there will be a reduction in the amount of average time a kid sits in front of the TV. What is needed is a change in lifestyle and eating habits, not a ban on TV advertising.
Now that I have pitched a few reasons why I don’t like the idea of banning food advertising on TV, I should also add that there are many ways we can collectively reduce its influence. Or at least create an environment where food marketers are forced to improve their message to serve the public good and not simply the interests of their shareholders. Government has a role to play, but so does everyone else. Here are few ideas that come to my mind; I am sure there are many more if we take a step back and think about this problem differently.
- Require a disclaimer on health risks in food ads – just like the ads for drugs have a disclaimer on potentially harmful side effects, a disclaimer should be required from foods high in calories, salt, sugar and fat. Before that happens, clear standards need to be established on a per-serving level so consumers can make an appropriate choice.
- Require a warning on product package – just like the Surgeon General’s warning on health risks of alcohol and tobacco, foods containing high calories, salt, sugar, fat and additives should be required to have a standardized warning on the label.
- Create and publicize a national database of unhealthy foods – just like a list of recalled products, there should be a database of foods that can be classified as unhealthy based on clear standards. Consumers should be able to report as well as search for products before making a purchase decision.
- Monitor and take aggressive action against misleading claims in food marketing – the problem is that functional claims are allowed and marketers use confusing language to convince customers into buying their products. It takes a lot of knowledge and savvy to cut through the confusion. This is where I see regulators playing a very important role.
- Launch a massive public awareness campaign – get on the offensive and launch a public awareness campaign. The argument I have heard is that it is too expensive and there is no way to beat the food marketers with huge budgets. We need to get creative – why not incent business majors to build and launch a public service messages as a part of their marketing class? Harness the power of social media and encourage key influencers in each community to fight this battle. There can be many low-cost creative ways of doing this.
- Empower parents to build their family’s personal brand – food brands are powerful, no doubt, but parents are the ultimate gatekeepers of their children’s nutrition and eating habits. The problem is that they are overwhelmed by information from different sources which may appear to be very confusing and even intimidating at times. With a little help, I think parents can develop their own brand which defines their unique approach to food and nutrition. It gives them a tool to evaluate food advertising and allows them to reject messages that are inconsistent with their brand. It is kind of an abstract idea but if companies can do it, why not individuals and families?
These are only a few different ideas, and by no means, I can claim to have all the answers. My hope is to start a conversation from a slightly different perspective. When it comes to the politics of food, a lot of focus is on the supply side of the equation. I would love to shift the conversation to the demand side for a change.
Will you join me in this conversation? Share your ideas in comments below.
Enjoy your weekend!