“Mum please… I love them. Oh but Mum… all my friends’ Mums buy them… just this once… I’ll tidy my bedroom… please… I promise…”
Aw bless (or do I mean BLESS?) them! Sound familiar? It should. Listen carefully and you’ll hear this mantra in every supermarket – every day of the week. Remember that surly child you saw stomping and harrumphing around the fruit and veg aisle last week? What about the tantrum throwing, feet-kicking, fist-beating four year old by the deli counter? Perhaps they were the ones whose mum said ‘NO’.
A lot of savvy parents are working hard trying to educate their children about food and encouraging them to eat healthily. But realistically, what chance do they have against the power of advertising and the predatory marketing moguls?
You don’t have to be Mary Poppins to know kids are easily influenced. They’re a marketer’s dream. They’re impressionable and have huge amounts of influence over their parents and their peers. How many doting mummies can resist their little angel’s heartfelt pleas (or will do ‘anything for a quiet life’)? But the end result is the same – marketing aimed at kids works. And that’s why food companies and their marketing departments can’t shirk their responsibilities – nor should they be allowed to!
According to the World Health Organisation, Britain has done more than most to shield children from advertising of unhealthy food and sweets. But is it enough? Denmark, France, Norway, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden have led the way with a full code of ethics on marketing to children. The UK hasn’t.
Take TV, for example. Ofcom has banned advertising of food with high salt, fat and sugar content during kid’s programmes. So while you can let your little treasures watch CITV with impunity, advertisers can do what the heck they like during ‘family viewing’. And guess what? As one hole was plugged, the floodgates simply opened in another. Junk food advertising has increased, especially during the 6pm to 10.30pm slot. And until that’s controlled too, there’s not a thing we can do about it.
Children as young as two years old can be influenced by advertising. But it’s not just the tiny tots who are at risk. Take teenagers – anything that’s bad for us immediately becomes irresistible to them. Suggesting a diet of salad or sprouts would cause their ‘cool-o-meters’ to go into meltdown. But that’s nothing new. I did my fair share of rebelling as a teenager and I wouldn’t mind betting you did too. How many of us, with hands on heart, could say we never snuck an underage drink in the pub? Doing the polar opposite of anything suggested by an adult is already in the teenager’s job description. They don’t need the food marketers to encourage them!
But the fact remains, kids today are prime targets. Yes, we could turn off the telly, but that’s just one of countless marketing channels. The sale of junk food in schools is now prohibited, I’m glad to say. But why are ice cream and fast food vans still allowed to park outside school gates?
Perhaps if you send your offspring to the local leisure centre to get some healthy exercise they’ll miss the marketing hype. Not so! Have you checked the contents of the onsite vending machines?
Do your children have mobile phones? Are they joined at the hip to Facebook? The junk food marketers are lurking there too ready to target kids with text messaging and social media advertising.
Hands up who lets their kids play those cool games on food company websites? After all, it’s a good way to keep them occupied, isn’t it? No – these dangerous ‘advergames’ are just another way of reaching gullible young minds.
Chewits’ ‘advergame’ opens with a screen saying ‘I predict you’ll be hooked’ – terrific! But visit the ‘Parents’ page and they’re fast to reassure you that they have your kids’ best interests at heart with platitudes like “…there’s no need to panic about enemies like hydrogenated fats and artificial colours.” They reassure us that “Chewitts – along with some of the big names in sweets – have got together to promote healthy eating.” Well, that’s alright then. Phew – I was worried there.
US company Cookie Dough Bites offers computer games, a free smart phone app and want kids to befriend them on Facebook and Twitter. But I was pleased to see they’re doing their bit for good causes too (note heavy sarcasm here). Just buy a BIG tub of their product and hold a fundraising movie night. As long as it’s for a good cause …
Research shows 16.3% children in England are obese. Obesity doesn’t just cause illnesses like diabetes; it causes mental health problems too. Overweight children can become depressed and are often victims of bullying.
It’s a vicious circle. Young girls are under enormous peer and advertising pressure to have the perfect figure. At the same time, food companies are cruelly targeting them with junk food ads because they want to make a quick buck. Is it any wonder these kids self-harm, become bulimic or anorexic, or in extreme cases, take their own lives?
I’m sure there are better brains than mine out there working to find a solution to this problem. Fat tax is currently being explored as a way of reducing obesity. More food education is certainly needed. We’ve bred generations of people who don’t know how to cook because cookery lessons in schools were abandoned in 1988.
I don’t think there is an easy way out of this one. But I do know kids should be loved, nurtured and protected. That’s not just the parent’s job – it’s everyone’s. And I’d like to see food companies take their responsibilities a bit more seriously please.