Health Canada is proposing a ban on the marketing of junk food to kids under the age of 17. It's wide ranging: possibly covering TV, online and print advertising, product labelling, in-store display and some sponsorships for sports teams.
The application of the prohibition needs to be be expansive because companies now employ many strategies and tools directed at the young. The proposal follows the lead of Senator Nancy Greene Raine, who introduced a private member's bill last November that would also have banned junk food advertising to children (but under 13).
(Photo: Peter D'Hondt via Getty Images)
It' s about time the feds took some initiative in this regard. Targeting kids to promote anything is nasty.
The law has long taken the view that children, because they are not fully capable of moral and other judgments, may need special safeguards and even restrictions whether in terms of voting, driving a car or smoking cigarettes. This concern for the welfare of young people extends to the influence of marketing, including by the food and beverage industries. Children can be a target for such promotional activities for three reasons: they are a "primary market" since they can spend money themselves; they are an "influence market" because they can shape parental purchases; and they are a "future market" because they will become adult consumers.
Those advocating controlling advertising to children make three main assertions. First, there is strong evidence of the association between marketing and consumption patterns of children. In the case of junk food such association can be a significant contributing factor to obesity. Second, restricting such advertising is justified because it exploits the development of children's cognitive abilities and capacity for judgment. Third, parents have limited power to counteract the substantial influences of such marketing upon their kids.
These are powerful arguments. But notice their relevance is not just limited to the promotion of non-nutritious food. They can apply to any kind of marketing to the young: games, toys, vacations and so forth. Quebec grasped this point when it banned all marketing to kids under 13.
All sorts of marketing to children is manipulative and unethical.
To determine whether an advertisement is directed at children the context of any promotion is assessed. Relevant factors in such situations include: the nature and the intended purpose of what is advertised, the manner of presentation, and the time at and place where it is shown. That legislation has been upheld by the Supreme Court as not constitutionally violating commercial free speech. In doing so, the Court confirmed what so many have asserted: "...advertising directed at young children is per se manipulative." Studies confirm that it has been effective in altering the behaviour of kids (and their parents.)
The federal proposal is an improvement on the Quebec legislation to the extent that it now raises the relevant age to 17. But, following the lead of that legislation, the feds and other provinces should act and not limit the ban to junk food. A specific reason such prohibition should be of general application is to avoid endless arguments about what foods are the subject of the ban. A more wide ranging justification rests on the arguments, set out above. All sorts of marketing to children is manipulative and unethical. The response should be straightforward: end all of it.
Such prohibitions will not be without complications. There will be enforcement issues including policing the borderless Internet. A webpage from a U.S. company targeting kids may be as accessible in Moose Jaw as it is in Boston. But such complexities can be addressed through national action and international cooperation. For the moment, let's get started. Let's send a strong message to corporate Canada -- no marketing to the young. Period.
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