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The Fight to Turn Off Junk Food Ads Aimed at Kids

Big advertisers are battling government regulation; we can’t let them win.

Shannon Rupp 29 Aug

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

Amidst all the chatter about Donald Trump and other hazards-du-jour, you might have missed the Association of Canadian Advertisers arguing that it has some inalienable right to sucker children into eating harmful foods.

OK, that’s not what they said exactly. But it’s what their “comments” paper suggests they really mean. It’s worth a read, if only to understand what we’re all up against.

The advertisers published the paper in response to Health Canada’s recent consultation about proposed policy changes — “Toward Restricting Unhealthy Food and Beverage Marketing to Children” — which would set limits on marketing unhealthy foods to everyone under 17.

The response is almost comic, in that Donald-Trump-way. In a mere 28 pages the ACA offers as much misinformation about nutrition as there is sugar in a frappuccino. All of it aimed at convincing government that curtailing kidvertising would have no impact on their health, but it would have a big impact on the industry’s bottom line.

They cherry-pick facts or lean on outdated beliefs in their attempts to muddy the waters in the complex and under-researched area of what causes weight gain.

“A well settled equation lies at the heart of any discussion of weight gain,” the ACA writes. “Weight gain will tend to occur when the number of calories consumed... exceeds the number of calories expended.”

No. That’s not “well settled” at all. The belief that all calories are equal has been debunked repeatedly in the last two decades. As has the notion that exercise has more impact on weight than diet. As this piece from Harvard’s medical school notes, the calories from processed foods, which are loaded with sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, are major contributors to weight gain and related diseases. It also notes that studies that once said otherwise were funded by the food industry, or done by researchers who had other conflicts-of-interest.

The advertising lobby report argues for all manner of things that are out-of-step with what your doctor will tell you, such as arguing that children who eat cereal frequently (including sweetened cereals) are far less likely to be overweight.

They also object to many processed foods, including juices, crackers, and yogurt, being put on the “unhealthy” list because that is “overly strict.”

“We believe that artificially suppressing consumption of foods like those listed above through marketing restrictions is unjustifiable from a public health standpoint,” the ACA writes.

Frankly, I think it’s overly strict too. I hated giving up daily orange juice. But arguing that it’s anything but liquid sugar is akin to being a climate change denier.

Eventually, the ACA cuts to the chase on the real problem from their point of view. If the ban on processed food ads aimed at kids goes ahead, there won’t be food advertising. Because no one advertises the whole foods that researchers recommend we eat. (Perhaps because you don’t have to advertise things people actually need?)

“There is very little advertising of ‘whole’ foods today, and that is highly unlikely to change because ‘whole’ foods are typically commodity-like products with little to no branding,” the ACA submission warns.

The association says that if Health Canada’s proposal is put into practice it will eliminate 10.5 per cent of all advertising activity in Canada.

In other words, food producers are spending more than a billion bucks annually on convincing kids to eat processed foods. That alone is a good reason to restrict advertising. If they’re spending that much on promotion, they must be selling junk food in huge, health-threatening quantities.

It’s quite a glimpse into this world’s sense of entitlement when it comes to exploiting the “pester power” of the young. The association believes “that the proposed inclusion of teenagers in the group of people to be insulated from exposure to food advertising is particularly inappropriate.”

Inappropriate you say? Well then, of course Canadians should avoid the social faux pas of protecting kids from propaganda. Certainly, we wouldn’t want to interfere with the profits of an $11-billion advertising industry built on conning people into buying things.

Pardon the sarcasm, but it’s the nerve of these captains of industry that always gets under my skin. And I’m sure I’m not alone: Canadians have been in a mood to regulate advertising for some time now.

Last year Tory Senator Nancy Greene Raine introduced Bill S-228 to prohibit marketing food to children under 13. (Quebec has had a ban on advertising to the under-13s since 1980.) Raine’s bill recognizes the impact of processed foods, with their high sugar, saturated fat and sodium content, on the growing problem of childhood obesity. It’s due for a final reading in the fall.

But that also means government has been feeling industry’s resistance to regulation long before this summer’s consultation process, which wrapped-up in mid-August. As Blacklock’s Reporter documented in July, internal memos (obtained through an access to information request) revealed that Health Canada was worried that industry would launch a court challenge if they attempted to change ad rules for children’s protection.

According to the memo, the government was hoping to persuade the industry to curtail its aggressive assault on the hearts, minds, and waistlines of kids.

Meanwhile, the ACA is making protests reminiscent of the tobacco industry of yore. The now classic argument goes like this: since no one can prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that ads for processed foods contribute to obesity and related health problems, why should they forego profits?

“We do not believe that food marketing restrictions are going to be effective in curbing childhood obesity in Canada,” they argue, “and yet would come at a significant cost to the food industry’s ability to communicate with adults and tremendous economic costs to a variety of industries, including the media industry that Canadians currently rely on for free, ad-supported content.”

That stalling tactic was a clever approach for big tobacco, since it required tracking smokers for three generations to provide incontrovertible proof that smoking caused cancers and other ailments. During those decades cigarette companies continued advertising, hooking new customers and prospering at the expense of a confused public.

A University of Ottawa study estimates that Canadian kids see more than 25 million ads for food products a year, more than 90 per cent of which feature harmful foods.

And if that number seems exaggerated, just consider all the new media carrying ads in multiple forms. There are video games (with product placement); YouTube (with shills); social media (more shills); and online (with tracking and pop-ups). That’s before you consider TV advertising, celebrity endorsements, and sports sponsorships. And don’t forget old-fashioned film and TV product-placement and merchandising.

Surprisingly for people in the persuasion game, the Association of Canadian Advertisers offers little in the way of plausible arguments for why they should continue exploiting children. It all boils down to the fact that they will lose a lot of money if they can’t market to kids.

But of all their delightful assertions in defence of their right to put the hard sell on the young, my personal favourite is their insistence that youth are not vulnerable to spin. Teenagers, they tell us, are skeptics. And even toddlers are alert to advertising’s seductions: “The precise age by which children can distinguish advertising from programming is likely to be around 3 or 4 years of age...” the association claims, misrepresenting the findings of a British study.

In fact, psychologists say that eight is the earliest age at which children have the cognitive skills to spot advertising’s manipulative intent. And some take years longer than that to figure it out.

And really, if any of the arguments about children’s immunity to propaganda were true, why would they be spending more than a billion bucks on advertising to these sales-resistant prodigies?

As I said: it’s comic. Or rather, it would be if the junk food manufacturers and their allies didn’t have such deep pockets. For once I have some sympathy for government, which is trying to do the right thing despite a distracted electorate giving them little support.

So, once you’re done having a good laugh over the ad association’s attempt at persuasive writing — seriously, how are these guys earning the big bucks? — you might want to look-up The Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition, and throw your voice behind their lobby. They make it easy to send a letter of support to your MP.

As activism goes, I realize letter writing is not as exciting as protest marches or rallies against extremists. But it may have a bigger impact in the long term. The fashion for fascism comes and goes, but the problems caused by processed food? Those are forever.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Food, Media

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