Monday, May 9

Advertising Obesity: Are Marketers To Blame?

scaleIf you thought that the United States was the only country targeting advertisers and marketers as the cause of childhood obesity, you'd be wrong. Australia has it out for chocolate and junk food too.

As proposed, the national blueprint would join aggressive anti-obsesity legislation shared only by Sweden and Quebec. Not only does the legislation regulate junk food advertising to children, but it kills chocolate-based fundraising drives in schools.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the blueprint would specifically limit television ads during certain times and ban all advertising across email, text messages, movies, magazines, school fundraisers, and public transport.

One study suggested that as much as 84 percent of the public supported the idea that "children should be protected from unhealthy food advertising."

In the United States, there have been similar efforts to curb childhood obesity, with most marketers attempting to make voluntary changes. For example, cereal companies have reduced the amount of sugar in their products.

The CDC reports that approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents, ages 2—19 years, are obese. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) breaks the numbers differently. It says 10.4 percent of American children, ages 2 to 5, are obese; 19.6 percent, ages 6 to 11, are obese; and 18.1 percent, ages 12 to 19, are obese. Three children in five are overweight.

However, almost all studies to determine obesity is based on body mass index (BMI), developed in the 1800s. It tends to overestimate body fat in people with a more muscular build. Ironically, BMI does not actually measure the percentage of body fat despite being used to do so in most government studies. It might even promote malnutrition.

BMI flawsBMI was only adopted as the result of Ancel Keys' efforts to popularize the measure in 1972 (he also marketed a specific type of diet). In recent years, Keys' studies have been criticized. Likewise, it wasn't until 1998 that the U.S. adopted World Health Organization standards and dropped the BMI obesity rating from 27.6 to 25. When that happened, 25 million Americans went from normal/overweight to obese.

A better measure might be a waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio. This measure tends to be more accurate for athletes, especially body builders, who have a higher percentage of muscle and a lower percentage of body fat. It also helps women who have a "pear" rather than an "apple" shape. A WHtR under 50.0 percent is generally considered healthy.

As a personal illustration, I score as borderline obese on a BMI scale, but the target waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio matches exactly where I am. If I attempted to reduce my BMI, I would look gaunt and force starvation. One inch off the waist would be a balanced solution. There's a reason for pointing out the discrepancies..

Maybe marketing and advertising isn't as evil as people would have you believe.

While it is clearly good news that manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in cereal, the reduction of advertising to children doesn't necessarily correlate to changes in their diet. In fact, Kate Carnell, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, pointed out that aggressive bans on advertising junk food in Sweden and in Quebec, Canada, have not worked.

How can that be? Technically, advertising to children has no real effect because children are generally powerless to take action. They need parental assistance to obtain excessive amounts of unhealthy products. In short, advertising is effective only when children do not understand the intent of advertising (to sell product) and parents are incapable of setting effective boundaries.

bikingAdd two more pieces to the puzzle. When Britain faced similar questions about childhood weight issues, it found that children expend about 600 kcal/day less than their counterparts 50 years ago. And, children today are also subjected to more "anti" unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The latter is especially concerning because "anti" campaigns actually undermine their own messages. Take anti-smoking commercials aimed at youth as an example. Every time they are exposed to the advertisement, they are forced to think about smoking. Ergo, when you tell children not to do something or not to eat something, you implant an image in their mind of them doing exactly what you told them not to do. It ought to be part of parenting 101.

If you want to bring about a positive outcome for kids, banning advertising isn't the solution. It might even be just the opposite.

• Appreciate that the studies many governments use to indicate obesity are flawed; avoid labels.
• Educate your children, early on, that the intent of advertising is to sell them something; be skeptical.
• Teach your children that setting boundaries is not a parent-child conflict; say no and mean it.
• Encourage healthy behavior (exercise, activity) over anti-advertising messaging; show them.
• Reduce access to stationary activities, e.g., television time and computer time; stress fitness.

If parents can take these actions, there won't be a need for overreaching regulation. More importantly, your children will remain healthy, and treats as an occasional reward or opportunity to have fun together over dessert won't have any impact whatsoever. Moderation and will power is an effective life lesson whereas focusing on scarcity or sacrifice predisposes misery.
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