Canadian kids are bombarded with junk-food ads. It’s time for healthier messages
‘The greatest opportunity for shaping the future health of people in B.C. is through positively influencing the health and well-being of children. … Schools are an ideal setting because they can reach almost every child in B.C., and by extension, their families.”
B.C. auditor general Carol Bellringer made this statement in a report her office released last May. Promoting Healthy Eating and Physical Activity in K-12: An Independent Audit examines B.C. Health’s and B.C. Education’s oversight of seven healthy eating and physical-activity initiatives in the province’s schools. The initiatives include programs and policies such as Healthy Schools B.C., the B.C. School Fruit and Vegetable Nutritional Program, and CommunityLINK funding for meal programs. Such programs have longlasting public-health outcomes. Healthy eating and physical activity lower our risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other chronic diseases.
Bellringer’s statement is apt, because it recognizes kids’ enormous influence on their families’ food and health choices.
Zoom out from schools, and we find industry and public-health agencies across the country wrestling over access to kids’ pester power.
You’ve seen the ads. Kellogg’s Pop Tarts, Red Bull, Frosted Flakes, Happy Meals, Bear Paws and others target children. Critter characters, cartoons, bright colours, and kid-friendly music and messaging are used to appeal to and manipulate kids into wanting products, then pestering mom and dad to buy them.
Kids are Big Money for candy and snackfood manufacturers and marketers.
University of Ottawa researchers found Canadian kids age two to 11 viewed more than 54 million food and drink banner and pop-up ads and 14.4 million display ads on their 10 favourite websites from June 2015 to May 2016. More than 90 per cent of the ads were for high-sugar, high-fat and highsalt products, according to Pan American Health Organization definitions. That’s more than 168,000 junk-food ads every day — just on the internet.
The Association of Canadian Advertisers estimates Canadians see about 159.5 billion food ads each year on television. Half could be said to target kids.
The human brain does not develop the ability to think critically or abstractly — skills necessary for assessing the value and purpose of marketing messages — until adolescence. Research shows kids younger than four to five are unable to distinguish advertising from non-commercial information, and kids younger than seven to eight are not yet able to recognize that ads are designed to persuade. Other studies show children as young as two years old can develop brand loyalty.
Faced with outraged parents and health practitioners demanding bans on junk-food advertising to kids, Canada’s ad industry agreed in 2007 to regulate itself. But with the resulting “Better for You” campaign including products such as Marshmallow Pebbles and Kool-Aid Jammers, the industry now faces its biggest challenge.
The Child Health Protection Act, or Bill S-288, underwent second reading in the House of Commons early this year. If passed, it would restrict marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids.
During public consultations, Health Canada proposed restricting advertising of, for example, regular soda, ice cream, candies and sugar-sweetened cereals. An additional option would restrict ads for foods such as granola bars, potato chips, French fries and artificially sweetened beverages.
The agency also proposed banning ads on TV on weekday mornings and evenings and much of the weekend, and curbing ads in schools, grocery stores and other places where “significant numbers of children are likely to be exposed to marketing” — including digital media.
Of almost 1,150 submissions made by consumers, health professionals, and foodindustry, advertising-sector and other organizations, most supported the proposals, with some amendments. These included defining “unhealthy,” coming up with an effective monitoring framework and defining the age of children to be protected.
In its own 28-page submission, the Association of Canadian Advertisers protested. It said the proposals are “overbroad,” “should be reconsidered from the ground up,” and would severely limit its clients’ ability to reach consumers. No surprises — the member-run association exists to protect its members’ interests.
But if the ad industry’s “Better for You” campaign includes Fudgsicles and Froot Loops, think how not being bombarded 168,000 times a day by ads for products containing more yummy sugar, more delicious fat and more scrumptious salt will be even better for all our kids. Now and in the future. At home and at school.