Even as childhood obesity becomes an increasing problem, it’s unlikely that heavy government restrictions on junk-food advertising will come anytime soon. Advertisers are making the case that they are already reducing the sugar and fat content in kid-targeted products, while ad industry lobbyists oppose restrictions.
Now, if Mike Bloomberg were to become president, things might be a whole lot different. Regulations issued in a Bloomberg administration might ultimately lead to a Supreme Court case involving Froot Loops and Power Rangers.
Mayor Bloomberg is on the brink of forcing restaurants and other vendors to limit sugary beverage sizes to 16 ounces in New York, enraging the soda lobby.
Disney recently said that in 2015 it would stop taking ads in kids’ programming for certain foods and beverages, looking to join efforts -- including the one by First Lady Michelle Obama -- to combat childhood obesity. There is plenty there for critics to say it’s a publicity stunt. The Disney Channel doesn't run ads and theme parks are not falling in line with any Bloomberg-like restrictions. Also, Disney CEO Bob Iger has reportedly said the move should only result in a short-term drop in ad dollars.
Nonetheless, it’s a noble move that has been rightfully lauded in many precincts -- including by the First Lady. No doubt, she’d like other networks to follow suit. And public-interest groups and pediatricians would like networks not to accept the ads and advertisers not to run them -- preferably well before 2015.
In Britain, a prominent physician is lobbying for junk-food ads to be prohibited until after 9 p.m. Even with efforts to limit ads in kids’ shows, it's not like kids aren’t exposed to plenty of other stuff, she says.
“Although they are trying to avoid junk-food advertising around specific children's programs, you've still got it around soaps and other programs that children watch,” Dr. Hilary Cass, president of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), told the Guardian. “So the only realistic way to do it is to have no junk-food advertising before (9 p.m.) in any programs at all.”
She added: "When children see the (ads) they start nagging their parents to get them a McDonald's or whatever. They see something at 6 p.m. on the telly and want a McDonald's that night. It's a similar thing to having sweets at the checkout –- get to them then.”
Her suggestion was met with resistance from the U.K.’s ad industry trade group. “This call … ignores the academic evidence and risks overlooking the real causes of childhood obesity,” Sue Eustace of the Advertising Association told the Guardian. “Advertising in the U.K. has an exemplary record in complying with one of the strictest regulatory regimes in Europe, and is already playing its part with constructive changes to the volume, visibility and content of food ads.”
If that’s the response ad industry groups on both sides of the Atlantic are going to give when calls for limits on soda and Big Mac advertising come up, they would be better off not picking up the phone.
The repeated argument about a lack of evidence showing a connection between ads for junk food and childhood obesity is tough to swallow at a time when kids are exposed to more media than ever. In a way, it undercuts the ad industry's case that advertising works.
And if the industry is indeed working to bring about “constructive changes,” that’s either an acknowledgment that junk-food ads are having a negative effect or the industry is just taking the action because of nagging public pressure.
In a sense, it would be admirable if the industry simply said it’s marketing legal products and it just wants to sell as much as possible. Otherwise, why not agree to a ban on junk-food advertising until after 9 p.m.? Or, go with some other restrictions with teeth, without waiting for some Harvard/NIH/RCPCH study offering results that are easily contestable anyway.