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Is TV to blame for fat epidemic?


Joseph Hall

Toronto Star
March 8, 2008


OTTAWA–Junk-food hawkers manipulate the minds of young children to get to their mouths. There was little disagreement about that at a conference here this week sponsored by the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada.

In hot dispute, however, was just how much the intensive marketing of fast foods and soft drinks was contributing to the obesity epidemic that is stalking the country's children, and whether governments should step in to ban such advertising completely.

After listening to a full day of expert opinion weighing in on both sides of the issue, a "jury" of eight educators, writers, broadcasters and marketing specialists brought together by the alliance agreed a wide-ranging ban was in order.

Still, the concept of a ban – only now gaining traction in countries in the developed world – is complex and polarizing and is certain to become heated before it's resolved.

For example, about a quarter of Canada's children are now overweight or obese. And data presented by Statistics Canada health expert Mark Tremblay showed that kids who watch three or more hours of television a day are 50 per cent more likely to be obese than those who watch fewer than two.

But does that increased risk of obesity come from being a sedentary couch potato, or should it be blamed on the commercials for high-caloric foods and beverages that saturate kids TV? Likewise, are virtual ads set up as "games" by soft-drink makers and hamburger sellers on the Internet encouraging kids to eat badly, or is it the time they spend playing the games that's making them fat?

And how effective are today's ads in getting kids to choose a product, or badger their parents into buying it, in the first place?

Harvard medical school psychologist Susan Linn has an answer for that last one.

"Comparing the marketing (to children) of yesteryear to the marketing today, is like comparing a BB gun to a smart bomb," says Linn, director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood.

"These days, it's honed by child psychologists, and it's made possible by this incredible technology that, more than ever, allows advertisers to bypass parents and target children directly."

While the bulk of fast-food advertising dollars are still spent on television spots, Linn says marketers are turning more and more to the Internet, cellphones, and MP3 players to get at children.

"There's marketing in schools masquerading (as fundraising) and there are major motion pictures coming out all over the world with all kinds of promotions," she says. "Commercials are just so 20th century."

Linn says arguments by junk-food sellers that parents should be the gatekeepers of their children's stomachs would be less objectionable if they targeted their ads solely at mothers and fathers.

She says children are especially vulnerable to the hodgepodge of pitches directed their way. Indeed, Linn says, most children younger then 8 cannot even distinguish between TV commercials and the programs they support.

"So the question is, how can it possibly be fair to advertise to them if they don't have the cognitive capabilities of defending against it?" Linn asks. In Quebec, which has had a ban on all children's advertising for 28 years, the judgment was made that it was not fair. And the ban, based on the cognition argument, has long since withstood a Supreme Court challenge.

While advertising is obviously an effective means of selling products, however, it may be simple societal demand that is turning people to unhealthy fare, says Queen's University marketing professor Peggy Cunningham.

"We see marketing as an outside demand from the consumer pushing what we do inside," says Cunningham, a specialist in marketing ethics. "Yes, it's driven by psychologists, yes, it's driven by very sophisticated research, but it is to understand ... the consumer (and) form long-term relationships with the consumer."

Cunningham says consumers, living in a fast-paced world, are driving the demand for convenience foods and that companies are simply trying to capture a share of that market when they advertise.

"We have stressed, harried consumers who are demanding convenience. And when you're stressed and when you're harried there will be a demand for high caloric, sugar- laden, fat-laden food," she says.

It's the rushing world, ironically, that is also making children more sedentary, Cunningham says, with a reduction in parental supervision allowing kids endless hours of watching television and playing video games. As well, she says, the use of food banks, which often dole out high-calorie goods, is on the rise across the country.

"Is this the fault of advertising, or are there endemic social factors that are also pushing this rise in obesity?" she asks.

Dale Kunkel, a University of Arizona communications professor, believes the fault lies squarely with the ads. Kunkel says numerous studies have shown that the "couch potato effect" theory of obesity is incorrect and that children who watch little TV are just as inactive physically as chronic tube addicts.

Thus, he says, it must be something the heavy TV viewers are watching that is making them more obese than their light-viewing counterparts.

Kathy Baylis, a food and resource economist at the University of British Columbia says her research indicates that Quebecers, by some 7 per cent, consume less fast food than people in other provinces.

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