Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Policy Point Wednesday: Why Advertising Succeeds When Education Fails

Just recently, I saw the following tweet by food activist Michele Simon, author of Appetite For Profit, a book and blog about food justice, politics, and the food industry:
"Another comment to my blog along the lines of, "just say no" to the food industry's predatory marketing practices aimed at kids."
This piqued my curiosity, so I visited the post in question, where Ms. Simon discusses the FTC's decision to exclude characters promoting junk food from its list of voluntary guidelines on marketing to children.  A reader had commented that the best solution was
"not to go to McDonalds or any other business you don’t approve of. There is nothing that says a child (or adult) must have fast food. And why doesn’t that parent choose the healthier item on the menu? Because the child will have a fit? The tail shouldn’t be wagging the dog and the childs fit shouldn’t determine the parents decision. I just don’t get why we have to regulate everything. Make your informed decision on what’s the best food to eat and eat it. Don’t eat the garbage. Why is that so hard?"
To be fair, the ultimate goal is for fewer of our calories to come from foods of minimal nutritional value and for people to make better choices - but, as I've written before, it's often not so simple to do. One assumption to challenge is that parents know how to make better choices.

I decided to enter the debate, and responded:
"You’re implying that all consumers understand or have the level of education needed to refuse unhealthy foods or resist corporate marketing. Let’s put this into perspective: An average of 13 hours (or 780 minutes) per year is spent on nutrition education in our public schools, out of 1,003 total hours per year. Contrasting that, an FTC TV Study showed that in 2004, children on average were exposed to 2,202 minutes of food advertising, and teens 2,193 minutes in television ads alone.
Now, keep in mind that the food industry pays huge sums of money to make the food advertising more appealing than the educational stuff…AND many nutrition education programs in schools are paid for by food trade associations, and thus function as marketing, anyway. Do you see how the deck is stacked in the food industry’s favor?
What I do think: a simpler answer than regulating marketing is requiring dollar-for-dollar matching of child advertising/ marketing monies to be donated to independent education programs earmarked for the areas where the marketing applies (e.g. food marketing to nutrition education, consumerism to consumer education.)
The bottom line: the food industry has no incentive to stop what they’re doing, despite the severe social consequences. The industry has set up the average American to fail when it comes to diet, because it’s in their best financial interest. I don’t see a free-market answer to this dilemma."
The sources cited above do not consider marketing other than TV ads, where over half of the ads involve food.  Food companies expose children to their brands in dozens of other ways: expert Marion Nestle points out on her blog, Food Politics, how kids are exposed to ads during leisure time on Ipads, cell phones, and in electronic social networks.

Ad exposure isn't limited to homes: several states permit advertising on school buses, and even inside schools as part of incentive programs, sponsored educational materials, and placement of ads on school property.  Children are a captive, vulnerable audience, subjected to mixed messages during most of their waking hours.  It has not escaped my notice that no one in this debate is suggesting that food advertisers restrict their marketing to parents.

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