Ban TV Food Advertising to Reduce Childhood Obesity – Really?

By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity?

This is the question researchers from Netherlands and Australia asked in their recent article published in the European Journal of Public Health. TV food advertising has attracted considerable public scrutiny, especially from experts in nutrition and public health. There is a popular belief that food advertising plays a big role in influencing food choices and brand awareness among young kids. As a result, kids get hooked on processed food and snacks full of fat, salt and sugar. Clearly, this could be one reason why we have a rapidly rising rate of childhood obesity believe most experts.

Beliefs and opinions are common, but thoughtful scientific inquiry to support them is rare. That is why I found this article interesting because it tackles this tricky problem through a good scientific approach. The researchers candidly acknowledge that the effect of advertising is difficult to study in a direct way. In fact they did not find a single study which quantified the effect of advertising and body weight in a realistic setting. Instead, they looked at changes in the total energy intake due to TV advertising based on a single study from 1983, which concluded that an extra 25 minutes/week of exposure to TV advertisements would cause a child to eat one extra snack which would increase his energy intake by 1.4%.

This is a very small effect. The researchers then decided to set up an expert panel of academics and asked them to complete a questionnaire to estimate the effect of TV advertising on energy intake and effect of energy intake on BMI. Surprisingly, they got a very poor response rate – only 8 out of 33 completed their questionnaires. As a result, there was considerable bias and uncertainty in the data.

Bottom line, they came to the following conclusions:

  1. If all TV advertising (about 80 minutes/week) was stopped, the prevalence of obesity will drop by 2.7% in boys and by 2.4% in girls
  2. Based on the “expert panel” response, they estimated these numbers to be a reduction of 6.8% in boys and 6% in girls
  3. They estimated that about 1 in 7, or as many as 1 in 3 children would not be obese if there were no TV advertising

Overall, these numbers have a very large amount of uncertainty. The evidence against the effect of TV advertising is weak and calls to ban or limit TV advertising are largely based on personal opinions.

Personally, we have not experienced the effect of TV food advertising in our household because we hardly watch any TV. Mostly our twins watch animated shows on demand where we completely bypass the advertisements.

I am not a supporter of cheap junk food. But I also do not support the idea of banning TV advertising. I continue to believe that the best protection against such advertising is to build the wall of your family’s own personal brand which defines your approach to food and nutrition.

Parents: what is your opinion? Do you think that your family’s food choices are strongly affected by TV advertising? Would you support a complete ban on food advertising to kids?

©2010 Littlestomaks.com

8 comments

  1. HannahCookingManager

    You don't explain why you are so against banning advertising. Advertising to children clearly is effective or companies wouldn't spend so much money on it. Whether or not it causes obesity and to what degree, it surely has a serious impact on children's future health.

  2. I think it's a lot easier to advertise to children because they haven't been “duped” before by false advertising. As you grow older you learn “50%” off means they probably are charging 150% more than they should be.

  3. TwinToddlersDad

    Hi Hannah

    I think there are other ways to make sure food advertising stays honest and provides enough information to customers. I believe a “ban” neither justified nor in the interest of our free economy. It is hard to determine “effectiveness” of any advertising and all advertising costs a lot of money. I would not assume that just because food companies spend money on TV advertising means their advertisements are “effective”.

    I will be writing more on why I don't support a ban. Thanks for your comment and please come back to join the discussion!

  4. TwinToddlersDad

    Hi!
    Thanks for your comment. Clearly there are two customers for food advertisements to children – the kids themselves and their parents. Kids don't buy the product, parents do. Kids of course are influenced by it, but ultimately parents are the real customers.

    Now I have heard that the advertisers are so clever they know how to put these parents in a helpless situation. One argument against free toys with junk food is that they undermine parental authority. This is not a valid argument in my opinion because parents seem to be able to make smart choices about many other buying decisions. Why not kids food?

    Could be that the ads are misleading? If that is the case, I would agree to making sure there is full disclosure and going after false information.

    Still, does not justify a “ban”

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  6. HannahCookingManager

    Let's use the term regulation instead of ban, without getting into the degree of regulation.
    Do you agree with legislation that limits advertising of tobacco products targeted to children and teens? Formula advertising targeted to new mothers and distribution of free samples?

    Children and babies are vulnerable, and they should be protected. It's one thing for adults to make bad decisions that impact their own health. When they affect the health of children it's a different story. It's true that it's hard to say where to draw the line, as a lot of things affect health. And I agree that parents parents play a primary role. Still, it's naive to think that advertising isn't extremely effective even among educated and aware consumers.

    Yes, I do assume that companies spend huge sums marketing to children of all ages and their parents because it increases their sales. They're not doing it for social action. If all advertising for McDonald's, breakfast cereals and soft drinks stopped today their losses would be huge.
    Looking forward to reading more on the topic.
    -Hannah

  7. HokieRD

    Love the blog! As an RD and a parent of a toddler, I too think the suggested ban/regulation on advertising to kids is very misguided. I say this as a former food professional who once helped lobby for this kind of legislation but always questioned WHY we weren't expecting more from parents and why we would invite the government and lobbyists to make these decision (in the name of political gain). Suffice it to say I no longer work to do this. While many parental decisions are driven by children, parents are ultimately responsible for what their children eat. I do the grocery shopping. It's not always easy to get kids to eat healthy – I see this with my two year old son who doesn't watch commercials and STILL only wants to eat crackers and milk. And when he's older and can purchase food on his own, I do hope he makes healthy choices but will not be surprised if he chooses something that is tastier over healthier on occasion – that's the way it is! I personally love Poptarts because they TASTE GOOD – my siblings and I used to give them to each other for Xmas since my mom never bought them – and shouldn't be made to feel guilty if once in a while I treat myself and my child to one. 🙂 Parents, it's time to step up.

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