More on food ads to kids

Following up on my earlier post today on proposal’s to ban junk food ads or promotional characters to kids, take a look at the ACMA’s summary of the scientific evidence on relationships between children advertising and obesity (relevant passage over the fold). It certainly makes me glad that Labor is going to wait until the results of the ACMA Inquiry before committing to its proposal.

The debate about television advertising of food to children exists in a context of concern that obesity is a growing worldwide epidemic (Wadden, Brownell & Foster, 2002). Public health literature points to multi-factorial contributors to obesity, including hereditary, environmental, social and cultural factors. Consideration of the relative role of these complex and interrelated factors to overweight and obesity in children was not in scope for this review, which was of necessity media-focused. However, literature reviews cited that refer to television advertising tend to place children’s exposure to advertising within the framework of effects of television viewing and cite studies of television viewing and obesity (Carter, 2006; Hastings, 2003; Ofcom 2006a).

A number of these studies do establish a correlation between television viewing and obesity in children and adolescents. However, it seems from the research that it is difficult to ‘disentangle’ or isolate television advertising as a factor distinct from television exposure generally (Hastings, 2003; Livingstone, 2006; Ofcom, 2006a). Two points in particular should be noted here:
• where research does establish a correlation between television viewing and obesity, this is reported to be a small or modest relationship, and generally does not provide evidence for causation; and
• studies generally do not distinguish among three possible explanations for the observed association between television exposure and obesity: increased exposure to food advertisements; increased food intake while viewing; or reduced physical activity.

In the UK, the Office of Communications (Ofcom) published a substantial report on obesity, food promotion and advertising that included compilations of data from other sources, a literature review and new data collected for the purpose of the report (Ofcom, 2004). This found a correlation between hours of television viewing and obesity and poor diet, and found television viewing (a very sedentary activity associated with snacking) to be not the only factor, but a consistent contributor. This report also found that television advertising does have an impact on children’s food preferences, but that it is not solely responsible, finding that other factors also affect preferences. In 2006, Ofcom added policy directions to their 2004 research and re-summarised the main findings about obesity and television advertising by stating that ‘television advertising has only a modest direct effect on childhood dietary habits. Other factors in the family home, playground, school dining room and playing fields have a greater role in driving up levels of childhood obesity when compared to the role played by commercial advertising airtime’ (Ofcom, 2006b, Foreword).

Similarly, a wide-ranging overview of the research literature on the relationship between childhood obesity and food advertising on Australian television (Carter, 2006) reported that television food advertising seems to have only a very small, indirect link to childhood obesity,
with the direction of causation and specific contribution of food advertising equivocal. Carter found robust evidence to suggest that television viewing and childhood obesity are related, but qualified that this relationship is weak, with only a small independent effect size. Carter concluded that regulating television advertising, or banning all television, would have little, if any, effect on childhood obesity rates. Livingstone’s 2006 literature review of mainly US and UK research on television advertising and child obesity concluded that there will never be a perfect experiment to establish whether television advertising causes children’s food choice and subsequent diet. (Ofcom 2006a, Annex 9) The following studies exemplify the range of potential variables that may affect the relationship between television exposure and childhood overweight and obesity.

2 thoughts on “More on food ads to kids”

  1. The Ofcom impact assessment work on this issue was interesting. I read it just under a year ago, so bear with me if I’m rusty on the detail.

    The task was split between the Dept of Health (to look at the benefits, principally from reducing health costs of obesity) and Ofcom (to look at the costs, principally to broadcasters/advertisers).

    Ofcom’s work was pretty clear and objective (albeit subject to significant revision). DH’s work was dense – almost impenetrable – with a lack of clear spelling out of assumptions. On drilling down into the material, I found that some of the conclusions that made their way into the summaries was a bit suspect.

    For example, despite showing a pretty small direct of tv advertising on children’s diets, the estimated health benefits of a ban partly rest on a conclusion that indirect and cumulative impacts on children are important. But the original research they drew on related to the impact of television watching (i.e. of programmes not adverts) on violent behaviour in children (i.e. not on their diets). I suspect the health Nazis were driving this side of the work.

    In sum, it’s not clear that the impact assessment work really showed any net benefits of a ban but Ofcom was left with dealing with the best of a bad job (the government would have regulated in a more heavy handed way if Ofcom hadn’t regulated in a light touch way). I sincerely hope that the paternalists in the ALP take a less interventionist approach should they gain power, but hey – it’s for the children.


  2. Hi, this is a interesting article. I like a food also, for this my weight 96 kgs. 😦 .
    I want to choose these years more vegetable fooding and need more healty life. But i like
    most much than meat, So if any body can know good diet programme pls. cantact with me
    Best Regards . M.Y


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