“Two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions in a sesame seed bun…” I can still remember the jingle, word for word, from being exposed to those Big Mac commercials as a child. But does childhood exposure to fast food advertising have an impact beyond giving us a horrible ear worm for life? Recent research suggests that it does.
The province of Quebec in Canada has the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country despite having one of the most sedentary lifestyles. How is that possible? A study by Tirtha Dhar and Kathy Baylis found that Quebec’s 32 year ban on advertising to children led to an estimated:
- US$88 million annual reduction in expenditures on fast food
- 13.4 billion to 18.4 billion fewer fast food calories being consumed per year
The study also found that patterns established in childhood carried into adulthood, with French speaking young adults in Quebec being 38% less likely to purchase fast food than French speaking young adults in Ontario (where there is no advertising ban).
Parents should ‘just say no’
This study provides further proof that advertising works. It also demonstrates that parents whose children are constantly begging for fast food (after being exposed to ads) end up purchasing fast food more frequently than parents whose children are not exposed to advertising. Many people say that those parents should “just say no” and take some personal responsibility. Perhaps that is true, but is that the best we can do as a society?
In the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff explains that parents are constantly put in the position of having to say no:
‘No’ to pizza days at school. ‘No’ to chocolate milk as part of the school lunch program. ‘No’ to the freezies handed out after soccer practice. ‘No’ to the meal and the co-branded Disney toy that was advertised on television. ‘No’ to the sugary cereal with the decoder ring on the bottom.
Some parents do say no over and over again, but some don’t for a variety of reasons. Freedhoff goes on to ask whether we should rely exclusively on parental responsibility:
As an increasingly unhealthy society, the question we need to urgently wrestle with is should a non-uniformly delivered parental “no” be our sole line of defense against the incredibly aggressive marketing of unhealthy food to our children?
That is a good question for the managers of Canada’s ParticipACTION program, which has partnered with Coca Cola to “ensure a Canadian society where people are the most physically active on earth.” Getting kids off the couch is good. Telling them to guzzle high fructose corn syrup filled fizzy drinks is not so great.
Need a multi-faceted approach to combating childhood obesity
Although the authors of the study on Quebec support the use of legislation to restrict advertising to children, they emphasize that, it shouldn’t be the only tool in our toolbox. Dhar told UBC’s Sauder School of Business:
Legislation should just be one of the tools in a larger, comprehensive plan that includes education about healthy eating and parental care. The key issue is how you manage the environment for your children, from which TV programs they watch to the kinds of food they eat.
A multi-faceted approach to combating childhood obesity is certainly required. One that looks at providing greater access to healthy foods, educating the pubic about healthy eating, ensuring children have plenty of opportunities to go outside and play (both at school and in structured and unstructured recreational activities), and reducing children’s exposure to advertising that could shape a lifetime of bad eating habits.
Photo credit: hildaaa on flickr