As parents, our impulse is to try to control everything our children eat, hear, touch, smell, feel, and see. It can be exhaustive, but we wouldn’t have it any other way – after all, we are their conduits in this overwhelming world, guiding them down or away from the paths we think are best.
But no matter how much we try to shield our kids from negative forces – like advertisements on television or elsewhere – sooner or later these messages seep in, whether by accidental exposure, through conversation with friends, or other means. Your child (like mine) may never have eaten a McDonalds hamburger, but he or she undoubtedly knows what one looks like, thanks to the power of advertising. And a recent study out of the University of British Columbia confirms that viewing such images directly impacts childhood obesity rates – and not in a good way.
In Quebec, for the last 32 years, it has been illegal for fast-food companies to advertise to kids in print or electronic media. Researchers estimate that, as a result of this ban, children in Quebec consumed 13.4 to 18.4 billion fewer fast food calories per year, and spent $88 million less on fast food than they otherwise would have. And guess what? Quebec has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in Canada, despite the sedentary lifestyle many children tend to lead there, according to the study.
What’s more, the report also found that French speaking young adults in Quebec were 38 percent less likely to buy fast food than those in Ontario, where there is no ban on advertising, showing that habits established in childhood tend to stick for the rest of our lives.
While this news is heartening for the children and all other citizens of Quebec, it is disappointing that the rest of Canada – and the United States, for that matter – have not been similarly brave enough to adopt this same prohibition. That something so simple like banning ads of a specific nature could produce such a striking effect on childhood health is a revelation, to say the least, and should inform future governmental policy in North America and abroad.
Which brings me to another recent story about the use of advertising to discourage negative behaviors: Just last week, an appeals court said that New York City could not try to scare smokers by requiring stores that sell cigarettes to display grotesque images of diseased lungs and decaying gums. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is often criticized for trying to legislate people’s health, as when he announced earlier this year his intention to ban super-sized sugary drinks, but his approach has already shown results: A study by city health officials showed that a five-year-old ban on the use of trans fats in restaurants in New York City has sharply reduced consumption of these unhealthy fats.
As an unexpected bonus, many of the fast-food chains banned from using trans fats in New York City have elected to discontinue cooking with trans fats at other locations nationwide, according to the study.
Advertising affects the choices we make, whether we like it or not, and whether we realize it or not. It’s a simple truth for adults who know better, and a scary truth for children, who usually do not. Banning fast-food advertising or allowing graphic images to discourage smoking won’t solve the obesity and nicotine problems in this country or any other, but it’s a step in the right direction – a step that more legislators shouldn’t be afraid to take.
It’s also a sign that parents need to be more vigilant than ever about their children’s media consumption. Monitor the channels they watch and publications they read to see what kinds of ads are displayed. If you’re not comfortable with the products being sold at your kids’ expense, change the channel or take away the magazine. Better yet, pick up the phone and lodge a complaint with the station or publisher, and then tell your friends to do the same. Remember, too, that we ultimately bear the responsibility to make good choices regardless of what the advertising or fast food industry puts in front of us. Advertising may be loud, but the consumer can be louder.