From the mouth of babes: how junk food advertising affects our children

Conrad Bower

The power of junk food advertising over our children has been demonstrated by a study carried out by Cancer Research UK (CRUK). The *report, released this week, shows the children involved describing junk food advertising as “addictive” and “tempting” and that they felt like they could “lick the screen”.

Researchers involved in the study visited six schools and talked to children between 8 and 12-years-old. TV advertisements for junk food were shown to the children, and a discussion followed.

The children reported that many of them watched adverts during family TV time, and many could recall advertising theme tunes. The power of celebrities in advertising to adults is no secret, so it is no surprise that the researchers believe that celebrities, combined with bright colours and humour, are able to attract children’s interest and influence their eating habits.

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A 6-year-old boy from Northamptonshire described how adverts influence his eating habits and make him more likely to use pester power on his parents, saying:

You might be eating a piece of fruit, you might see the advert, and you might just throw it in the bin and ask your mum for money and leg it to the shop,

A girl in primary 5, from Edinburgh, describes how adverts embolden her to pester her parents:

I asked my mum if I could have it and she said no and I was annoyed and I kept trying and she finally said yes and I got to go to the shops to get it,

Children’s pester power is well known by parents and the cost to them over a year is predicted to be between £460 a year to £5000 a year. But it is the cost to the children’s health, not the wallets of the parents, that is of concern to the researchers at CRUK.

The director of prevention at CRUK, Alison Cox, said:

The rise in children’s obesity is a huge concern and a growing epidemic. There must be no delay in taking action. We know that obese children are around five times more likely to be obese adults, and obese adults are more likely to develop cancer. This is why we need regulations to stop junk food advertising on TV before the 9pm watershed to give children a better chance of a healthy life.

At primary school, more than one in five children are overweight or obese before they start. By the time they leave one in three will be overweight or obese. And, along with an increased risk of cancer, obesity puts the individual at increased risk from diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

A North Lanarkshire girl in primary five said during the study, after watching a TV advert for sweets:

It makes you feel as if you’re happy and excited and it feels like you want to try it because the guy’s dancing in it because he’s eaten it and it tastes good.

Many of the children described seeing adverts during family TV time from 7 o’clock till around 8 or 9 o’clock. According to CRUK, a recent YouGov survey showed that 74% of the UK public support a ban on TV advertisements promoting junk food before 9pm.

The World Health Organisation is also worried about the harmful effects of food and drink marketing and have recommended that “governments play a leading role in reducing children’s overall exposure to food marketing”.

There are potential criticisms of this study.  Children are often wise beyond their years and so this current qualitative study may be subject to bias as the children may have been aware, after being shown junk food ads, about how they were supposed to react.

To provide more definitive evidence further studies could use control groups. After viewing advertisements, the groups could then be presented with a set menu, the food eaten would then be recorded. This could provide evidence of any effects on diet directly after viewing adverts.

This is an old story that keeps rearing its head because of a commonly held belief that advertising junk food does negatively affect kids. As far back as 2004, a report from the BBC showed calls for junk food ads to be banned.

We are all aware how powerful advertising aimed at adults can be, so why do we allow innocent children to be subjected to the powerfully persuasive force of advertising? Let’s hope that this time the growing size of the obesity epidemic and the increasing weight of evidence will enable the government to tear its ear away from the persuasive whisperings of the corporate food lobby, and finally take action.

Featured image via Pixabay

Source of story information: AlphaGallileo (unless hyperlinked otherwise)

*Cancer Research UK report: Ad Brake: Primary school children’s perceptions of unhealthy food advertising on TV

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