By Michael Crupain, MD, MPH
Public Health professionals can often be heard saying that education is not effective at getting people to change their behaviors. This sounds pretty reasonable, especially when you consider that the majority of American’s are overweight, yet for over 100 years people have been taught that eating healthy and staying active is the best way to maintain a healthy weight. There is a form of education however that is very effective--advertising.
Food advertising is ubiquitous and has become part of our environment. We are constantly bombarded with images to “educate” and lure us into eating unhealthy foods. Ads are designed not just to inform us about how good a product is, but also to get us to associate that product with certain traits or lifestyles that we desire. This messaging helps to build brand loyalty, so that we prefer one brand to another even though in reality there may be little difference between them.
Companies know that brand loyalty is important and try to start building it as early as possible. Targeting advertising is a well-known strategy used by tobacco companies to get kids to smoke and today food companies are using the same techniques to hook children on unhealthy foods. Junk food ads aimed at children are especially troubling, because many children, cannot tell the difference between an ad and a show or don’t understand that an ad is trying to sell something.
Food companies invest huge sums of money in advertising to children, because the advertising works. Over $2.3 billion is spent annually to advertise food to children and 98% of those ads are for unhealthy products. Sadly, by the time an American child graduates from high school, they will have seen the equivalent of nonstop junk food commercials 24 hours a day for a month. Even worse, the more ads a child watches the more likely that child is to become obese.
Recently the FTC proposed new standards designed to protect our countries children from the influence of junk food ads. Under the new standards food companies would voluntarily stop advertising products high in fat, salt, or sugar during children’s programming over the next 5 to 10 years.
These FTC guidelines represent a step in the right direction and an acknowledgement by the US government of the dangers that junk food ads pose to children’s health. Unfortunately though, the FTC proposal will not protect our children from obesity, because it is not strong enough. Food companies cannot be trusted to self-regulated and they have no incentive to comply with the FTC’s voluntary action if it will limit their profitability. In addition, food companies are already fighting strongly against these voluntary guidelines.
Now food companies, realizing that there may be some future limits on their ability to advertise to children, are looking for new opportunities to get their unhealthy products into the mouths of kids and build brand loyalty. Fortunately they seem to have found an untapped resource—fathers. According to Advertising Age, over half- of men identify themselves, as the primary grocery shoppers of the family; yet do not feel that they are targeted by ads. Well this is all soon to change, as Kellogg’s is about to lead the way in expanding its ads for frosted flakes onto more shows with an adult male audience.
While these new ads will continue to poison the food environment, it is still important that stronger limits be placed on the ads aimed at children. A mandatory ban by the FTC on the advertising of unhealthy foods using the strict guidelines it developed would be a major step in decreasing childhood obesity. These guidelines would likely push food companies to create healthier items so as to enable them to continue their advertising and maintain sales. While this may not completely end the obesity epidemic it is an important part of creating a safer and healthier food environment.