Thursday 14 November 2019
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(No) Advertising to Kids by Bill Bogart

(No) Advertising to Kids

In my blog for the Huffington Post earlier this month I talked about the report on food marketing to kids by Healthy Eating Research (HER), in the US.      HER is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation a major source of funding for health research in the United States.

The report’s recommendations are disappointing.  It does little except tweak the US food industry’s voluntary guidelines regarding marketing to children.  That code is ineffective and can be easily evaded.  And yet because the recommendations come from such a prestigious body supported by such an established foundation they risk being given weight that they should not have.

And, at the moment, Ontario may be looking at various recommendations in this area.  The Healthy Kid Strategy contains a lot of good recommendations to promote healthy eating/drinking and physical exercise.   It says that there have been consultations regarding “next steps” “…to restrict the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages aimed at kids” (The relevant Experts’ report said there should be a ban.)

When it comes to dealing with advertising to children Ontario should look to Quebec.  A ban on all advertising to children thirteen and under has been in effect in Quebec since 1980. The legislation was attacked as an infringement on free speech. That assault was unsuccessful. The validity of the Act was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989. In 2013 a panel of experts, convened by the Alberta Policy Coalition for Chronic Disease Prevention, urged the adoption of the Quebec model, at a national level as applied to marketing of food and beverages to children.

This week, in the Huffington Post, I discuss a campaign to advertise healthy foods to youngsters, fruits and vegetables  – FNV, which has emerged from the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit.

    It’s not a taxpayer funded health campaign; it’s a for profit venture for those sponsoring the initiative.  Here are three reasons why I’m wary of this idea. 

First, the food industry spends billions each year marketing its products with a significant slice of that budget targeting kids.  Even a well organized and reasonably funded campaign advertising  healthy foods to youngsters could be pulverized by the offensive on behalf of junk food and beverages.  At the same time, FNV, ineffective in itself, could be pointed to as a justification for any advertising to children, including first and foremost marketing by Big Food. (Exposing kids to ALL forms of advertising is the way to go; let them decide.)       

Second, all promotions to children, because of their age and lack of development, can end up manipulating them.  Even kids as old as 8 often cannot distinguish between commercials and program content.  Children should be kept away from all merchandising techniques even for good ends.

Third, Americans may view these issues differently from other societies, including our own.  As the HER report, noted above, demonstrates official voices in the US, even those promoting good health, are unlikely to take a tough stand against marketing to children for various legal and political reasons that have less force in our society. In contrast we have a tough model, in this country, to address these issues.  Quebec’s ban on all advertising to children has its complexities but it has been effective.  The rest of Canada needs to press on using that legislation as the benchmark.

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