Sweetening the Obesity Debate

Everyone knows that too much television is not healthy for developing minds, but did you know that commercials are also making your kids fat?

A study released this week by Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity revealed the least nutritious breakfast cereals. Lucky Charms, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Honey Nut Cheerios were among the worst offenders. These, and other children’s cereals, have 85% more sugar, 65% less fibre and 60% more sodium. Massive television, internet, and supermarket advertising campaigns, specifically aimed at children, associate these cereals with positive emotions, having fun (toy in the bottom of the box), being happy and apparently being cool. The result of this, the study concludes, is increased levels of childhood obesity.

Oh please! While the advertising budgets are shocking (a combined $229 million in 2006), the results are not. It is hardly news that cereals marketed with cartoon characters aren’t the best nutritional choice. Neither is the idea that marketing makes people of any age want things.

The obesity research asserts that “children have no cognitive abilities to defend against advertising messages; therefore, advertising to them is inherently unfair and potentially harmful given the nutritional quality of the products promoted.” This sounds like a very good argument against allowing marketing to children, but it doesn’t show me that there is any direct connection between polluting children’s minds with advertising and childhood obesity.

Children are bombarded with images of Barbies, laughing Elmo toys, and video games constantly. Not to mention the kid on the playground who brings a new toy to school and suddenly, all the other kids have to have it. I was recently watching TV with a friend’s five year old daughter when a toy commercial came on. She had little experience with commercials as her TV exposure was mostly limited to ad-free channels such as TVO or Treehouse.
“What is that?” she asked me.
“A doll,” I replied.
“I want it.”
It didn’t matter that she rarely plays with dolls or that it wasn’t even a particularly special one. She wanted it. I laughed at her reaction, but I was also shocked. I couldn’t believe how quickly the message was transformed from images to desire in her sponge-like, naïve mind.

She didn’t get the doll, though. Because what the researchers fail to address is in this study is the role of parents as decision makers. Children don’t have any direct buying power, only whining power. Parents ultimately get to decide what their children eat, what toys they play with and how much exercise they get, at least while children are young. Some parents will have tougher battles than others, and surely advertising will add to that battle. But the last time I checked, parents were still the boss.

Eating junk-food in place of a proper breakfast probably is a contributing factor in childhood obesity. In fact, the study found that children were likely to eat twice as much sugar cereal than healthier options, but they would eat better cereal if they were given the chance. With that knowledge, it is clear that advertising does not make children fat, choices make children fat. So until parents are willing to take responsibility for their children, trimming the ad budgets of Kellogg’s and Post isn’t likely to have much of an effect on kids’ health.

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