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Junk Food Ads Add Up March 3, 2010

Posted by naj24 in Global Health, Health Communications & Marketing, Prevention, Social Marketing, Wellness.

Astonishingly, a child will likely watch up to 3600 fast-food advertisements on television each year or ten per day.   According to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, marketers are interested in children and adolescents as consumers because they spend billions of their own dollars annually, influence how hundreds of billions are spent in household purchases and are future consumers.   A 2006 report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine concludes that food and beverage marketing “may contribute to negative diet-related health outcomes and risks among children and youth.”  The net effect is that fast-food ads contribute to rising rates of childhood obesity in America. (the problem)

The influence commercial food ads have on children was discussed in Oslo, Norway in 2006 by experts from the WHO, agreeing that,

WHO should support national actions to substantially reduce the volume and impact of commercial promotion of energy-dense,micronutrient-poor food and beverages to children; and consider the development of an international code on the marketing of food and beverages to children to address issues such as cross-border television advertising and global promotional activities, and to protect children in countries where national action has not been fully implemented.

After the WHO proposed that countries limit “junk food” ads aimed at children (one solution), the Bush administration claimed that there was insufficient proof that advertising causes obesity and did not take any action.  While not a priority of the Bush Administration, the issue of childhood obesity was likely to resurface under a future administration that would likely deal with expected higher rates of childhood overweight and obesity. 

Fast-food Ad Exposure Among U.S. Children

Children in the United States watch 3 hours of television on average daily, which is greater than the recommended time advised by the American Academy of Pediatrics of 1 to 2 hours.   American kids will see an average of nine minutes and 14 seconds of commercial advertisements per hour while watching Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. on a Saturday morning.  The length of commercial time during children’s programming was limited to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays by the Children’s Television Act of 1990, currently still in effect. The number of television advertisements viewed by children, on average, has risen from 20,000 to 40,000 per year between the late 1970s to late 1990s, which means that children in the U.S. watch more ads than children in several industrialized countries. The above study data do not specify childrens’ ages, therefore it is assumed children of all ages are excessively exposed to television ads.

Why WHO Guidelines Aren’t Being Followed in the U.S.

An argument raised often by the fast-food industry in defense of fast-food ads is their right to commercial speech, protected in the U.S. by the First Amendment.  As part of a four-step analysis, the U.S. Supreme Court must determine if the “asserted governmental interest is substantial” before deciding to restrict product advertising.  Implementation of the WHO guidelines is not possible until a successful argument can be made that it is in the government’s best interest to limit fast-food ads.  This perhaps requires even stronger, clearer scientific evidence that fast-food ads cause obesity or that regulation of fast-food television ads is associated with lower childhood obesity rates.  Additionally, there is less likelihood of Supreme Court challenges to marketing regulation since 24 states have passed liability-clearing laws, which prevent individuals from suing fast-food companies claiming damages based on consumption of products.  Legal feasibility was a major barrier to implementation during the Bush Administration, which argued the evidence was unconvincing that fast-food ads cause obesity, and therefore asserted limited governmental interest.  Under the current or a future administration, however, this may change.

The Federal Trade Commission originally had the authority to regulate fast-food ads on television but over the years this has changed.  In 1978, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) proposed a ban on television ads to children under 8 and ads of sugary foods to children 8-11 years old. The FTC argued that such ads were “unfair” since they targeted children who could not fully comprehend their persuasive intent, and used their authority under the FTC Act to prohibit them. Congress, under extreme lobbying pressure from the food industry, decided to remove the FTC’s authority to judge if such ads were “unfair.”   However, the FTC retained the authority to determine if ad practices are “deceptive.” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) also shares the role of regulating food ads with the FTC.   Meanwhile, the more dominant authority on commercial food ad regulation is the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), made up in part by food industry leaders. This is a self-regulating group, in which the industry pledges to be responsible for regulation of their own ads.  The lack of a strong, unified and bias-free governing authority on regulation will make it difficult to implement WHO recommendations on “junk food” marketing practices. 

Other Solutions

Alternative and/or complimentary solutions besides adopting the WHO guidelines in the U.S. are 1) getting the current government involved in food marketing reduction to children in order to reestablish centralized authority to the FTC in decision-making on the issue, or 2) involving the First Lady in a campaign to reduce junk food ads on television, as well as reduce the number of hours children spend watching television.  The latter is somewhat feasible since Michelle Obama has already spearheaded a campaign tackling childhood obesity in America.  It seems possible that in the next several years, especially if Obama is reelected, that the First Lady can lead a successful effort to reduce the volume of junk food ads on television. 

Instead of watching ten ads for McDonald’s or Burger King on television each day, hopefully within the near future, kids will be watching more ads for nutrition, fitness, and overall wellness.  Such a small change could lead to their choosing different diets as adults and reduce the rates of childhood and adult obesity in America.



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