Food marketing to children, and the responsibilities of parents

The Vitality ObeCity Index 2017 (pdf), released in October,  “analysed data from Vitality members living in six cities across South Africa” in order to present an overview of South African eating trends and health statistics. The report describes some positive trends, while highlighting that “we still have a lot to do to combat obesity”.

I contributed three opinion pieces on science communication, the food industry and marketing to children, and the importance of consumers making informed choices. Here’s the last of the three contributions.

Children and young adults are a key target demographic for food marketers. This is of course not because all of them are able to purchase food themselves (although many of them can), but because they influence the purchasing decisions of their parents, and also because the youth of today are the adults of the future.

According to a 2016 paper by Dr Mariaan Wicks (North-West University), around 18% of South African children are overweight – and this proportion has been rising at close to 1% per year for the past decade.

Data from numerous studies clearly show that food marketing to children is effective, in that it increases both preference for, and consumption, of the advertised foods. If one wanted to slow increasing childhood obesity, it therefore stands to reasons that some restrictions on marketing food to children might be justified.

Those who are opposed to any form of the nanny-state might well object here, and say that in a free market, it is the consumer who should make choices, and in this case, that the responsibility to make wise choices ultimately falls to the parent, both in terms of what they buy and what they encourage their children to buy.

However, we have many established precedents for allowing paternalistic interventions to protect vulnerable populations. The human brain’s lateral prefrontal cortex – crucial in self-regulation and assessment of risk – carries on developing into our early 20’s, so children are simply less able (in general) to make responsible decisions, justifying some measures of protection such as restrictions on when they can, for example, drive a car.

For younger children, the situation is potentially far more serious. According to the American Psychological Association, children younger than 6 struggle to distinguish between regular television programming and advertising, and children younger than 8 do not understand the “persuasive intent” of advertising.

For this younger group, at least, there is a clear ethical implication, namely that marketing to them amounts to exploitation.

And the problem doesn’t end with television, as all parents would be aware. Food marketing exists on the Internet, in computer games, in films (both on-screen and in their fast-food tie-ins), and the list certainly doesn’t need to end there.

A 2016 report by the World Health Organisation (Europe branch) argues for severe restrictions on food marketing to children, including cross-border regulatory frameworks, “appropriate sanction and penalty mechanisms”, and developing clear guidelines both for what counts as a legal age for being subjected to various forms of marketing as well as defining those forms of marketing themselves.

We might end up not want to go quite this far, because while paternalism has its place, encouraging self-regulation (of both marketers and consumers) is also a valuable goal. But there is clearly an argument for doing more than we currently are, given that the aforementioned Wicks paper shows that over a 4-month period in 2014, 20% of food advertisements were aired during programmes aimed at children, and 43% used child actors.

The paper further discusses appropriate frameworks for assessing nutrient profiles of foods, as an important step towards developing an evidence-based framework to assist with determining reasonable limits on food marketing.

While this sort of work is important and to be encouraged, we can also perhaps learn valuable lessons from discussions in nations such as Canada, where bans on advertising to children have been in place since 1980, and where a consultative process on extending such bans nationwide, and to include older children, recently concluded and will likely offer valuable insights.

But while policy and regulatory interventions are debated, perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is this: in early childhood development, where food choices are being formed, we don’t need to rely only on state or voluntary regulations on what marketers may or may not do. Parents have a vital role to play also.

And while some parents might not have sufficient knowledge regarding nutrition in order to take on the task of guiding the food choices their children make, they can fairly easily acquire at least a greater amount than they currently have, rather than waiting for others to make progress on this important issue. We can’t control everything our children do, but we can control some of it.

In addition to encouraging healthy eating habits and physical activity, leading by example, we can attempt to limit time spent watching TV, playing computer games and surfing the Internet. We can encourage school governing bodies to take healthy-eating choices seriously, and hold them to account for not doing so.

And, we can remind ourselves that most of the time, it’s not the increasingly-overweight children that are buying food. It’s us.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.