Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Policy Point Wednesday: Advertising and Obesity

I've said before, one of the real deficits in the food desert is education - but there is a deeper, more systemic problem than can be solved just  by pointing families towards healthy foods.  The consumer marketplace and the media play a role in food choices, and the negative effects of these forces can be seen at work in the food desert.

For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics states that "children and adolescents view 40 000 ads per year on TV alone." The Academy estimates that half of these ads are for food, especially high-calorie snacks - healthy foods appear in commercials less than 3% of the time.  In The 30-Second Effect, scientists Dina Borzekowski and Thomas Robinson concluded that preschoolers who were shown an advertisement were significantly more likely to choose the advertised item, even if their exposure to the ad was very brief.  It's no wonder these campaigns are so effective in altering a child's behavior: the advertising world spends about $15 billion dollars on marketing to children, contrasted with about $1 billion in nutrition education spending.  Fast food and snack foods, the beneficiaries of many of these marketing dollars, are the foods that are both most available and most profitable in the food desert.

Agencies like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the somewhat controversial Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Media Awareness Network have been working to address these issues, advocating for restrictions on commercials aimed at children, especially when it comes to unhealthy foods.  PBS Kids, a nearly commercial-free media environment, offers a terrific resource to teach children about advertising and how it works: Don't Buy It, Advertising Tricks, the FTC offers Admogo, and ThinkQuest offers a similar, if less appealing, site.  Unfortunately, all of these resources depend on parents who are willing to combat the tidal wave of advertising - a difficult proposition, since many low-income parents lack the education to understand the negative effects of marketing on their families. 

Again, education is the key - but education can't succeed unless we can find a way to shout down the billions of dollars worth of voices that depend on our bad habits for survival.

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