Dallas, TX – Does advertising make us fat? No secret that obesity is the number one health problem and has become a children's health problem as well. Packaged food companies spend billions a year to advertise and market junk food - like Twinkies, Coca-Cola and Captain Crunch. Little or no nutritional value, lots of calories, sugar and preservatives. Is the solution to ban advertising on children's TV? The Center for Science and the Public Interest (CSPI) thinks so.
Flash. News at 11. Obesity is a problem because we're eating too much, too much of the wrong thing and exercising too little.
The increasingly self-righteous call to ban advertising to kids is dangerous because it creates the illusion of doing something right to fight obesity.
Those who want to ban advertising argue that the government successfully banned tobacco advertising, but that's an apples-and-oranges comparison. It's already illegal to sell tobacco and alcohol to kids under 18.
In addition, there's the little problem of the First Amendment. Truthful commercial speech is protected. Thus, ads for pills that make you "lose weight while you sleep" can be successfully challenged by the Federal Trade Commission. Ads that say "Sponge Bob Square Pants Pop Tarts" cannot.
The next issue is one of definition and description. Those who favor a ban use the term "junk food." What is junk food? A bagel can have more calories than a donut. Is one Happy Meal worse than Szechwan Pagoda's fried rice and egg roll? Is a Diet Coke with no calories better than a glass of apple juice?
Imagine the battles over the government drawing up a list of "junk food?" It would make the redesign of the food pyramid look tame. Nuts are supposed to be good protein, but a bag of salted almonds has an enormous amount of sodium.
Proponents of an advertising ban argue that they only want to ban ads to children or during children's programming. Any parent recognizes the flaw in this logic. Children are watching all kinds of shows. There is no clear line between children's and non-children's programming.
The critics are correct when they point out the imbalance, both in money and talent, between advertising for so-called junk food and for apples, bananas and other healthy and easily consumable food. Frito Lay spent $52 million to introduce Baked Lays. The group that plugs apples spends pennies to plug apples. But the tobacco experience shows that funnier, hipper ads that understand their audience can have an impact despite a much lower advertising budget. The anti-tobacco ads in California appeal to the cynicism and humor of teens. They've had a measurable impact on teen smoking.
The pro ad groups point out that the ads for snack or fast foods on programming for very young children are designed to make the child demand the food. And this is the real heart of the problem and the solution. The answer isn't to ban ads. It's to remind parents that if they are overweight, the chances are overwhelming that their children will be, too. It's hard to say "Over my dead body!" to a screaming, sobbing four-year-old. Alas, given the long-term damage of obesity and bad eating and exercise habits, parents who don't exercise their parental "no" may find that's exactly the right analogy.
Merrie Spaeth is a communications specialist based in Dallas.