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Should Healthy Foods Be Marketed to Kids?

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JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

In my last post I talked about the need to ban junk food advertising to children. I pointed out the weakness of a recent report from the U.S. from Healthy Eating Research (HER) and suggested that the rest of Canada look to Quebec where all advertising to kids has been banned for several decades. Quebec legislation and its enforcement are not without complications. But it is a strong stand by the law against an unethical practice.

Within days of that post several bloggers commented on another initiative that, again, raises issues respecting marketing to children but from a different angle. A campaign to advertise healthy foods to youngsters, fruits and vegetables -- FNV, has emerged from the Partnership for a Healthier America Summit. It's not a taxpayer funded health campaign; it's a for profit venture for those sponsoring the initiative. The program has been endorsed by Michelle Obama and various celebrities. The website claims its focus is on "influencing consumption...of fruits and vegetables among teens and moms" but there is no indication of how kids will be shielded from such promotions. (And why is there no mention of "dads"?)

The initiative has caused a stir, including cordial disagreements among those who are generally aligned against the tactics of Big Food. So, for example, Bettina Elias Siegel is for and Casey Hinds and Yoni Friedhoff are against. All three of these noted commentators who speak about obesity and other health issues have made important arguments, pro and con, which you can read for yourself. There are good reasons, in theory, to support such a program. But, in reality, I fear that it may do more harm than good especially if it is taken up in this country. Here are three reasons why I'm wary.

First, the food industry spends billions each year marketing its products with a significant slice of that budget targeting kids. Even a well organized and reasonably funded campaign advertising healthy foods to youngsters could be pulverized by the offensive on behalf of junk food and beverages. At the same time, FNV, ineffective in itself, could be pointed to as a justification for any advertising to children, including first and foremost marketing by Big Food. (Exposing kids to ALL forms of advertising is the way to go; let them decide.)

Second, all promotions to children, because of their age and lack of development, can end up manipulating them. Even kids as old as eight often cannot distinguish between commercials and program content. Children should be kept away from all merchandising techniques even for good ends. At the same time any such bans do not prohibit all advertising. Campaigns to promote healthy eating, for all ages, are to be encouraged -- and adequately funded.

It's targeting kids that's the issue. (Siegel, in favour, points to the Cat in the Hat cheering reading as an existing instance of campaigns directed at kids that should reassure us about the validity of FNV. A good point. But the cat is encouraging a single, positive activity not promoting particular foods in a sea of messages urging ever more consumption.)

Third, Americans may view these issues differently from other societies, including our own. As the HER report, noted above, demonstrates official voices in the U.S., even those promoting good health, are unlikely to take a tough stand against marketing to children for various legal and political reasons that have less force in our society. There have been many attempts to rein in Big Food's merchandising practices in America. With very little success. In contrast we have a tough model, in this country, to address these issues. Quebec's ban on all advertising to children has its complexities but it has been effective. The rest of Canada needs to press on using that legislation as the benchmark.

We shouldn't become distracted by experiments in advertising healthy foods to children and others. It may be an attractive concept; but its reality could well be otherwise. When it comes to kids in this country the Quebec model points the way.

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