Fat Kids and Advertising: Furore Grows

17 November 2003

At last week's contra-partisan London conference Changing Attitudes to Children’s Food, M&C Saatchi partner David Kershaw did not shirk the poisoned chalice of child-targeted food advertising

"No one in the advertising industry underestimates the seriousness of child obesity as a major problem and no one is in denial that the role of advertising will need to come under the microscope," Kershaw told delegates. "We absolutely do have to tackle the problem of child obesity but it will have to be by addressing the real and sometimes difficult multiple causes."

As to an imposed ban on advertising, such as the parliamentary private members bill proposed by MP Debra Shipley (Labour, Stourbridge), Kershaw argued that "all reason and evidence tells us that not only would [this] be ineffectual but it would merely be a smokescreen for a failure to tackle the real causes."

Attending the conference were representatives of the media, food and advertising industries as well as consumer groups and governmental advisory bodies. Discussion ran the gamut of the topic's complex and volatile issues in an attempt to establish possible routes forward.

• Elsewhere that day (Thursday), Advertising Association director-general Andrew Brown gave evidence to the parliamentary select committee on health, currently holding an Inquiry into Obesity, in which food advertising is among the terms of reference.

He told the committee that the AA's Food Advertising Unit last year commissioned Charles Gallichan, former head of advertising at the Health Education Authority, to examine this area. "One of the key findings of that work was that investment in public policy advertising campaigns has to be long-term and sustained for them to work.

Brown cited as an example the anti-drink driving campaign, which has been effective primarily because its funding is ongoing and assured. "What is needed in the UK to combat obesity," he argued, "is a long-term commitment to promoting healthier lifestyles, supported by a similar long-term and well-funded advertising campaign."

An advertising ban, however well-intentioned, Brown insisted, would not have the desired effect. Such a "simplistic, knee-jerk solution" would fail to address the fundamental problem of obesity. He pointed out that in Sweden where TV advertising to children has been banned for a decade, obesity levels continue to increase. "This suggests that there is no link between the television advertising of food products and childhood obesity."

Another effect of a ban would be a reduction in children's quality TV. In Sweden, the commercial free-to-air broadcaster schedules the bare minimum of children's programmes, whereas in the UK "there is considerable diversity and choice".

• Meantime, respected UK medical journal The Lancet demanded that the government ban soccer heroes such as Gary Lineker and David Beckham from promoting unhealthy foods in a bid to stem the nation's rising tide of obesity.

"One of the most invidious techniques used by junk food advertisers is to pay sports and pop celebrities to endorse food -- especially bizarre since sports celebrities need a properly balanced diet to achieve fitness," railed the journal, which demanded legislation to compel the junk food industry to "clean up its act".

"Such celebrities should be ashamed, as should others who get caught in the web of junk food promotion... Celebrity endorsement of junk food has to be banned."

The Lancet also savaged the BBC for its £32 million Tweenies franchising deal with McDonald's. "The Food Commission found that [McDonald's] Tweenies products were high in junk elements," it accused, at the same time calling on producers of healthy foods to "take a leaf out of the junk food industry, and promote its products more effectively".

"Cauliflower, sprouts and broccoli are not advertised enough," the medic's house mag opined.

Data sourced from multiple origins; additional content by WARC staff