I recently read an interesting, but unsurprising study from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) - they surveyed over 2,000 UK parents with children aged 16 and found that 2/5 of them are badgered by their children each week to buy food after seeing it advertised on TV and feel that television junk food adverts make it difficult to help their children eat a healthy diet. Of course. And there is plenty of evidence to back this up - showing that food commercials aimed at kids focus on products high in fat, salt and sugar, and that children develop positive attitudes towards the foods they see advertised. Despite regulation, children in the UK are exposed to more TV advertising for unhealthy than healthy food items, even at peak children's viewing times.
And worse, regulation doesn't prevent the advertising of unhealthy products during programmes classed as family entertainment, which include some of the most popular television programmes watched by children such as X-Factor and Britain's Got Talent.
We want stricter guidelines
In fact the survey found that seven in ten parents would like stricter regulation on the food industry's use of advertising. The BHF has therefore just delivered a 30,000 strong petition, asking Government to ban junk food adverts from being shown before the 9pm watershed, to help protect children from making unhealthy choices.
But do you think the big food and drink manufacturers are unduly worried about this?
Of course not. Not when they can use one of our national icons to act as a giant advertising hoarding instead! As someone at the forefront of managing obesity, I am furious that we are allowing blatant advertising in other ways. Take Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the London Eye. With London Eye staff apparently wearing Coca-Cola branded uniforms to match the promotional material displayed around this family attraction, the company gets the chance to advertise to 3.75 million direct visitors a year. What's more, we will do plenty of advertising for them as we promote the "Coca-Cola" London Eye, our top paid-for tourist attraction, around the world.
As Coca-Cola know all too well, linking their product to happy and exciting events such as visiting the London Eye is likely to forever link Coca-Cola to fun in the minds of young, impressionable kids (and adults!).
Merlin Entertainments, who own the London Eye, said customers were able to make their own minds up about what to include in their diets. True - but we aren't making the best choices, clearly, with 2/3ds of us overweight, ¼ of us obese and the NHS spending £6bn pounds a year on obesity.
Is it all down to personal responsibility?
Personally, I don't think so. That same failure of personal responsibility meant we needed extra help to tackle smoking - and widespread advertising bans and preventing smoking inside public buildings was required. In just the same way, we can't tackle obesity alone and need help - not giant Coca-Cola branded wheels reminding us of the sugar-laden temptations it promotes!
Reducing TV advertising to children as the BHF are suggesting, will, of course reduce the number of junk food advertisements children see. But, as the London Eye disgrace shows, junk food advertising isn't limited to TV.
It's not just TV advertising we need to be wary of
There are plenty of ways by which companies can market to kids or adults outside of TV advertising and the regulations for non-broadcast advertising are currently weak or non-existent. Our kids seem to spend an increasing amount of time on-line, actively engaging in social media, and the junk food and drink manufacturers are busy providing games, social networking apps and other tools to promote their brands in cyberspace where the adults often fear to tread! A study by the Children's Food Campaign, of 100 websites featuring food likely to be bought or requested by kids, found that over 80% were associated with foods classed as less healthy and therefore not allowed to be advertised during children's TV programmes. Yet over 75% featured kid-friendly characters, competitions, downloads and links to social media apps that directly engaged with kids....because the internet regulations don't prevent our kids being targeted and manipulated in this way.
Sponsorship, whether of tourist attractions or sporting events like the Olympics, is another great way of ensuring that products trigger positive connections - harnessing the feel-good factor, which can last well into the future. Interestingly, research has also shown that companies seen to be involved in 'charitable' activities or corporate social responsibility can lead consumers to infer that their products are healthier and even lower in calories, leading them to consume more.
They create a 'health halo' effect from their good deeds as well as from the way they name and package their products to persuade consumers that they are buying a healthy, 'natural' product for themselves or their children.
So how can you resist?
We now make it a bit of a game to spot the most sneaky marketing manipulation techniques we can when we watch TV or are out and about. It teaches kids to have a bit of healthy cynicism and make their own choices to resist a heavily advertised product 'because they don't want to be a mug' ....even if they are a bit tempted by the sugary delights it offers!
So, yes please to banning junk food advertising before 9pm. But don't think for a minute that this will deter manufacturers of the high sugar, high fat, processed food that provides little, if any, nutritional benefit for our kids. Plenty of other advertising opportunities are open and they are busy working on how to manipulate us and our kids into buying more and more of the heavily processed rubbish that is damaging our health!
Keep an eye on them!