Censorship built on junk arguments

The global campaign to ban junk food ads is based on junk science: there's little evidence children 'eat what they watch'.

Various Authors

Topics Politics

Patrick Basham and John Luik, co-authors of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, say it is folly to try to change people’s diets and waistlines by banning ads for fatty foods.

A new global campaign to restrict junk food advertising to children is the public health equivalent of using a cricket bat to swat a fly. Such a ban would not just be an over-the-top, crude policy instrument – it is also deeply unscientific.

In the UK, there is currently a ban on such junk food adverts during television programmes that have a ‘particular appeal’ to under-16s. The ban covers both programmes and channels aimed specifically at kids, and other programmes that have a relatively high audience of children. The aim of the new campaign, spearheaded by the London-based International Obesity Task Force (IOTF), is to go further than this: to ban television advertising between 6am and 9pm for foods high in fat, sugar and salt; to completely ban internet and new media advertising; and to prohibit the use of celebrities or cartoon characters, competitions and free gifts to promote ‘junk food’.

The IOTF’s rationale rests upon a series of influential recent reports by the American Psychological Association, the US Institute of Medicine, the UK Food Standards Agency, and the UK television regulator, Ofcom. These reports claim that food advertising to children causes them to eat a diet that makes them overweight or obese. Consequently, it is alleged that restrictions on food advertising will reduce weight problems and obesity amongst young people.

If you peek behind the regulatory curtain, however, the claims about the causal influences of food advertising on children’s diets and weight share a central and definitive flaw in their understanding of what counts as demonstrating causality. In order to establish an evidence-based case for food advertising as a cause of childhood overweight and obesity, one would have to demonstrate that such advertising had an independent effect on children’s weight. This, in turn, would require a research study design that controlled for the multiple other risk factors (by some estimates dozens) connected with childhood obesity.

However, none of the studies purporting to demonstrate that food advertising causes childhood obesity control for more than a handful of these other risk factors. These studies therefore cannot establish an evidence-based case about the connection between food advertising and children’s weight.

If food advertising caused children’s weight gain and obesity, wouldn’t you expect to find an increase in advertising that parallels the increase in obesity? This is not the case. UK food and drink ad spending has been falling in real terms since 1999 and is now roughly at 1982 levels, even while rates of overweight and obesity have been rising. Consider, too, that in 1982 food ads constituted 34 per cent of total television advertising, whereas in 2002 they made up only 18 per cent.

In the US, one finds a similar trend. According to the Federal Trade Commission, advertising during children’s TV programming has declined by 34 per cent in recent years. Data from Nielsen surveys shows that food advertising on television has declined by 13 per cent since 1993.

If the level of advertising has not increased, perhaps the level of TV viewing has gone up? In fact, to the surprise of many, TV viewing has not increased during the period of the obesity ‘epidemic’, and some observers suggest that it has not changed for children and adolescents for the past 40 years. There is some evidence that the time children spend watching TV has actually declined in recent years.

Furthermore, when children sit down to watch TV, they actually view a balanced presentation of foods. A unique British study looked at the food references and messages in regular programming, as opposed to those contained in food advertising. There were as many references to food within regular programming as during the adverts. Children’s regular food programming contained references far more centred on so-called healthy foods. For example, fruit and vegetables were the most frequently portrayed foods in regular programming.

The IOTF will not tell you this, but there is also no proven connection between food advertising and food consumption patterns. There is a substantial econometric literature that disproves the alleged connection between advertising, diets and weight. Peter Kyle of the University of Lancaster examined the impact of food advertising on food consumption and found no evidence to support the popular myth that advertising will increase market size.

Martyn Duffy of the University of Manchester studied the impact of advertising on 11 food categories. Not only did advertising have no effect on food demand, but it also had virtually no effect on the demand for any individual food. Duffy’s conclusions are hardly exceptional. Other studies into the effect of advertising of such items as breakfast cereals and biscuits, both frequently cited as bogeymen in the childhood obesity epidemic, have concluded that advertising did not affect market size in any general way or to any material extent.

Bob Eagle and Tim Ambler looked at the impact of advertising on chocolate consumption in five European countries in order to test the claim that a reduction in advertising would reduce consumption. They report no significant association between the amount of advertising and the size of the chocolate market. Eagle and Ambler’s work is corroborated by evidence from the Canadian province of Quebec and from Sweden, both of which have had advertising bans on foods to children, Quebec since 1980. In both jurisdictions, however, there have not been significant reductions in childhood obesity or marked differences in obesity rates compared with other adjacent areas.

Brian Young of Exeter University studied the effects of food advertising on children’s food choices for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Young found that children’s food acceptance patterns and eating preferences develop in infancy. Therefore, they predate the influence of advertising. If children do prefer foods that are sweet, high in fat and salty, it is not because advertising created those preferences.

Despite the highly publicised claims to the contrary, the scientific evidence fails to provide a causal link between food advertising and children’s eating patterns or weight. You cannot expect parents pushing their supermarket trolleys to be aware of this inconvenient truth. But the IOTF has no excuse for hauling obesity policy into this evidence-free zone.

Patrick Basham and John Luik are co-authors, with Gio Gori, of Diet Nation: Exposing the Obesity Crusade, a Social Affairs Unit book. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Claire Fox suggested that children had more to fear from policy placement than product placement. Brendan O’Neill argued that advertising is a ‘free speech’ issue. John Luik told Rob Lyons that the obesity panic is being reinforced by savvy interest groups and junkscience. Jennie Bristow reported the findings of a spiked poll showing that parents should be responsible for children’s diets. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.


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Topics Politics


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