Australian governments have not had the guts to tackle junk food advertising and its contribution to childhood obesity, according to a new paper from the Parliamentary Library. 

OK, those are not exactly the words used by the paper, Marketing obesity? Junk food, advertising and kids, but it’s certainly the impression that it leaves.

Here’s the official wording:

The paper concludes that overall, the Australian response has been cautious in relation to calls for more action to deal with obesity and its concomitant health problems. Arguments that the junk food industry voluntarily and responsibly limits the exposure of children to excessively manipulative promotion of its products appear to have been successful in maintaining a largely self‐ regulatory environment in Australia. This is despite the findings of national and international studies that indicate more action may need to be taken, and the imposition of various bans and taxes in other countries. Some change to Australia’s current approach may occur in the future, however, as a result of a number of factors, such as growing public demand for intervention and a shift in health policy emphasis towards prevention.

The paper also notes that while preventive health is broadly on Labor’s agenda, the current Government’s policy intentions with regards to specific issues, such as junk food advertising, remain “vague”.

Snippets from the paper include:

• $12.6 billion was spent on advertising in Australia in 2009. Food and non‐alcoholic beverage advertising accounted for $402 million and $149 million respectively. There appear to be no figures available on exactly how much was spent specifically advertising to children. It is possible, however, to speculate from evidence presented in the studies noted in the previous section of this paper, as well as information on market spending by food companies, that the proportion was significant.

• An increasing number of overseas findings agree that television commercials for sweets, snacks and fast food are the mainstays of advertising which targets children. Many advertisements associate physical activity with the products and highlight the health benefits to be gained from their consumption. It is often stressed that the products contain ‘essential nutrients’.

• One marketing website promotes pester power as ‘a passport to growth’ for companies. It advises advertisers ‘to develop a strategy, which targets the kids and influences them totally, so that next time they are out with their parents, they get what they want’.

• A number of studies have concluded that advertising to children has produced disturbing results. One study revealed that by the age of two, children may have beliefs about specific brands. Two to six year olds can recognise familiar brand names, packaging, logos and characters and associate them with products, especially if the brands use salient features such as bright colours, pictures and cartoon characters. By middle childhood, most children can name multiple brands of child‐oriented products.

• An example of product placement is Coca Cola in the children’s film Madagascar.

The paper also examines the influence of advertising upon media content more generally, citing media critic, Ben Bagdikian:

The influence of advertising on magazines reached a point where editors began selecting articles not only on the basis of their expected interest for readers but for their influence on advertisements. Serious articles were not always the best support for ads. An article that put the reader in an analytical frame of mind did not encourage the reader to take seriously an ad that depended on fantasy or promoted a trivial product. An article on genuine social suffering might interrupt the ‘buying’ mood on which most ads for luxuries depend. The next step, seen often in mid‐twentieth century magazines, was commissioning articles solely to attract readers who were good prospects to buy products advertised in the magazine. After that came the magazine phenomenon of the 1970s — creating magazines for an identifiable special audience and selling them to particular advertisers.

But the paper suggests that maybe the times are a changing:

Despite claims by the junk food and advertising industries that self regulation works and further intervention is not necessary, it appears that something needs to be done to prevent public health and economic disaster. Similarly, while industry arguments which posit that the link between junk food, advertising and obesity is inconclusive have been influential in the past, it appears that evidence to the contrary is now becoming more accepted. Further, the trend towards preventive health, which has emerged in recent times, and the current government’s rhetoric of a reform agenda, which prioritises prevention, appears to indicate that a more regulatory regime for junk food advertising may eventually emerge.

Meanwhile, this table from the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children may come in handy next time you hear the food industry arguing that junk food advertising doesn’t contribute to children’s waistlines (apologies for the dodgy reproduction).

These may come in handy, when dining with food industry chiefs
These may come in handy, when dining with food industry chiefs

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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