Do fatty food ads make obese kids? Yes. No. Maybe.

The Executive Vice President, Government Relations of the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in the United States, Mr Dan Jaffe, has a blog where he posts opinions and commentary on ad-happenings. He also has a PR company who emails everyone who's anyone whenever he makes a new post in that blog, which I find really interesting. You don't just need a blog these days, you need a PR company as well in order to be really cool. Cooperkatz helpfully alerts me whenever Mr. Jaffa writes on about fast food ads and the rise of childhood obesity, I wonder if they ever read my earlier posts on the same topic. Jaffa writes in his post:

What is even more frustrating is that there is an ever-growing body of evidence that demonstrates that advertising is not a major factor in the obesity challenge that we increasingly face around the world. In Sweden and Quebec, for example, they banned all food advertising, yet their obesity rates are not lower than many societies that have no such restrictions and substantial rates of food advertising.

And yet again I must repeat the fact that the so called ban on advertising to children in Sweden does not exist, see the article Uninformed UK debate about childrens advertising marches on posted March 28, 2005. It's incredibly annoying that people are using this futile and fruitless "ban" as an example in their arguments.
Are they spreading disinformation on purpose or do they not know the facts I wonder. Which is worse?

The Food Fight Continues at Jaffa's ANA blog. Mr Jaffa, Executive Vice President of the ANA might have something to gain by downplaying advertisings effect on children and their food habits, he does represent ad agencies that make a killing on making these ads after all. Then again, the whole obesity due to fatty fast food ads hysteria might be just that, hysteria. Blaming the best bogeyman when in reality kids are sitting still playing computer games all day instead of being outside climbing trees like they used to. A lot of things have changed in our lives the past thirty years, our entire lifestyles. Blaming all childhood obesity on one single factor might be a tad naive, but I wouldn't be so quick to discredit advertising as some other commentators have. After all, I believe that with a few well chosen words and images I can make Saharan natives buy boxes of sand - I believe in the power of advertising or else I wouldn't be doing it. Screw the punters personal responsibility as they seldom take it, there are sheep out there who will do anything ads say. To say that people still have a choice is to indirectly say that advertising doesn't work. If that is what you believe, then why do you work in advertising? So if waking up with the King, visiting Ronald McDonald and watching snap crackle and pop dance around our cereal had no influence whatsover on the target market they aimed for, our kids - does that mean the clients can get their money back?

So what is the truth really? The experiment made by psychologists at the University of Liverpool that I wrote about here "advertising does work - on obese children" October 22, 2003, might have figured out what really happens when kids watch fast food ads.
Dr Jason Halford, Associate Director of the University’s Kissileff Laboratory, said: “Our research demonstrates the relationship between food television advertising and childhood obesity is not merely a matter of excessive sedentary activity. Although advertisers may disagree about the general role food adverts have in causing childhood obesity, it is evident that for children who are overweight, exposure to these adverts exasperates their already unhealthy eating lifestyle.”
You can download the full report Obesity in children (Word Doc). However, it's a very small group of only 42 children. Why are there no studies made on larger groups? Perhaps I haven't found them in the sea of articles about this.

Clearly there will be much debate about this for years to come, the fast food makers are the new tobacco companies, maybe in the future we'll see hamburgers banned from restaurants. So when you read a story on this subject - always consider the source. ;)

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Dabitch's picture

Ah, I guess I should have put this in the article as well, the related links - ANA chews the fat on kiddie obesity from Adfreak:

We’ve no doubt the ANA has done its homework on this issue, but trying to change public perception of advertising’s role in childhood obesity seems like a losing battle, no matter how many facts and figures are thrown our way. All it takes is sitting through one half-hour of Cartoon Network programming with a seven-year-old, who consequently pines for the sugar-laden snacks he saw on TV, to get what we’re talking about.

Advertisers Share The Blame For Fat Kids on Message from Wagner Communications

Jaffe cites statistics that show the amount of junk food advertising aimed at children has declined. And advertising folks and their clients all say that obesity is a matter of personal choice.
Maybe so.
But if you're working to create demand for a product that's bad for people -- and remember we're talking kids here -- aren't you part of the problem?
AnonymousCoward's picture

One, advertising works (but not alwas). Two, advertising (paid media space of a kind not specified here) is but one of many market communications tools. Three, if one firm is disappointed in another firm's successful (and legal, ethical, etc.) advertising the former's solution is not to make their competitors communication illegal. Rather they have to communicate better than the competition.

So, if one believe that ads, and other forms of communication (which I regard as more effective these days) influence behavior that increase obesity, then a nice option is to build communication that changes such behavior. Hint, the school is a nowadays seen as a marketing medium.

Neaner's picture

That is interesting, so blogs these days have PR firms emailing other blogs about new posts? Has the blog-pool gotten so big these days that one can not get noticed the old fashioned way anymore, by commenting and sending trackbacks to other blogs? Some PR firms embrace blogs while others fear them....Does anyone actually read them?

anothercopywriter's picture

The problem, as I see it, isn't that advertising makes kids want to eat calorie-laden foods--it's that their parents allow their rotund progeny to eat too many of them. Wanting to eat a Rice Krispie Treat Eating a Rice Krispie Treat isn't harmful. Eating a Rice Krispie Treat isn't harmful. Eating a whole box while spending Saturday glued to the couch is.

Isn't it parents' job, not advertisers', to teach children moderation?

AnonymousCoward's picture

I'm glad that your reading my posts and encouraging critical discussion of this important topic. Sweden and Quebec do have bans on children's advertising and their obesity rates are not lower than other societies without such bans. This fact, however, was only one of a series of arguments in my blog as to why it is not likely that advertising is generating the obesity problem in the US. The blog also cites data from Nielsen showing that ads for ood beverages and restaurants directed to kids were down between 1993 and 2004, the period cited for the greatest obesity growth in this country. Dollars for these ads were also down when rates of inflation were held constant. Variation, in obesity rates across the US, even in closely contiguous areas, are dramatically different although advertising for food in this country is relatively uniform. This fact again argues against advertising being a major driver of obesity rates. Also, surveys carried out by the Center for Disease Control demonstrate that calorie intake among teenagers and children in the period 1988 to 2000 in comparison to the caloric intake in 1971 to 1974 were generally down accept for girls 12 to 16 years old. At the same time, surveys carried out by researchers at the University of North Carolina found that the amount of exercise in the US was down about 13% from 1980 to the year 2000. There are many other points that could be made, but in summary, there are manifold reasons to believe that advertising is not a major factor in the obesity crisis. It is the array of data rather than any single one of these factors that should make this clear to those who are interested in fact not rhetoric .

Dabitch's picture

As someone who is really interested in fact not rhetoric I really don't think this point is that difficult to understand. Let me try it again; Sweden has a toothless law that exists only on paper which states that advertising to children is banned.

In reality, Sweden's TV channels with advertising are, and have been since 1987 when national ad-TV became a reality, aired from a country without such laws in place ; the UK. So, the national TV channels follow UK advertising laws and have ads aimed at children before, during and after the children's programming. All day and all night, and there ain't nothing Sweden's 'law' can do about it.

As a funny coincidence, the obesity rate among children in Sweden has skyrocketed in the past 15 years.

You can say "Sweden has a ban" as much as you want, in reality, the ban does not exist and never has. Any Swedish kid who turns on his TV these past 18 years will have seen ads targeted to them. Anyone who has kept up on the Swedish advertising news knows that the non-functioning ban is a matter of constant battle between the advertisers, the lawyers and the politicians - it's always in the tradepress around our parts. The advertisers always win, they have the right to air as many ads as they wish, whenever the hell they please, aiming at targets as young as 1 years old if they want to.

Please note, this "fact" is the only thing in the series of facts you have listed that I am objecting to and trying to correct. It's not a fact see, it's just an imagined utopia which people outside of the country of Sweden believe is true. So if that is bullshit, one might wonder how many of your other facts on which you base your arguments, are true? One might not too, i'm just saying that one could. Ever heard that annoying old expression lies, lies and statistics?

So my end point still stands, while it might be only one thing in a lot of factors that affect peoples behaviour, advertising can not be excluded from the blame when it comes to our obese and unhealthy lifestyles around the world today, in my ever so humble opinion. After all, we charge clients a lot of money for the ability to convince people to buy stuff - saying that our ads didn't make people buy stuff is just a tad off isn't it?
We never forced people to smoke either, yet tobacco ads are banned all over Europe these days, and the consumption of these legal products has been banned from all public buildings and resturants, starting in the US and spreading all across the world. Funny that, first they stopped the ads.. Then they tried stopping the habit (in public at least).

caffeinegoddess's picture

And yet people still pick up the habit (of smoking).

For the fast food/obesity issue in Sweden, if the country has a ban but is allowing ads to air from the UK, which are following the UK's standards of practice, then it's moot to claim Sweden has a ban on such advertisements because, if there was truly a ban, they wouldn't allow the UK ads to air. All of which sounds like a double standard to me. I don't get why danjaffe is arguing the point with someone who is from that country (Sweden).

Sport's picture

Corn Syrup is to blame.

AnonymousCoward's picture

i need help with school dissertation, i'm writing about childhood obesity and the role advertising may play in it. could you tell me how many tv-channels in sweden have commercials aimed at children?

Dabitch's picture

Sure. There are two channels that, like the BBC, are paid for by licenscing fees, they are SVT1 and SVT2. The children's programs on both channels have morphed into SVTB so any parent with a normal TV and special antennas has access to SVT1 SVT2 and SVTB. Only SVTB has children's programming all day.

The commercial channels include cartoon network (all day), Nickelodeon (all day), TV3 (aired from the UK, children's programming with ad breaks in the afternoon), and TV6 which show cartoons like Simpsons during "Kids hour" for older kids & kids at heart (lots of fast food ads here).

Since the dawn of all-day children's channels such at SVTB and the select ones you need cable or a digital box for, Cartoon Network & Nickelodeon, the other channels such as TV5 etc have stopped competing with children's shows and stopped advertising to children.You can safely say one out of three children's channels is ad-free now if you need to generalize. This wasn't always the case.