Monday, August 02, 2010

Food Fight!

The recent release of the new standards relating to advertising food to children has led to a flurry of praise from stakeholders in the food industry who have a burning desire to be seen as responsible – processed food manufacturers like McDonalds and the advertising agencies that present their stories to the populace.

On the other side of the debate are ginger groups who feel the new standards do not go far enough to address issues relating to the effect of advertising on the consumption behaviour of the hoi polloi. The aggressively named FOE (Fight (the) Obesity Epidemic), for example, say on their web-site: “The new Code, and the accompanying fanfare from the food and advertising industries, is all about ensuring no government regulation of advertising. Its aim is to protect what, from health and child protection perspectives, is a completely ineffective self-regulation process. It has nothing to do with protecting the health of our children.”

It is probably safe to say that both sides of the debate have ideological differences that will never be broached. Unfortunately they are often at crossed purposes.

It makes sense that the food industry does not want its customers to be unwell or die of dread diseases relating to diet.

It is equally fair to say that the anti ‘junk food’ advertising campaigners are reasonable people with genuine concerns – many of whom feel they are in a ‘David and Goliath’ duel where the foe is are massive multi-million dollar enterprises. Unfortunately they can seem a little hysterical as a result.

Consumers are the meat in the sandwich. Some families have limited budgets and are time-poor. The result is a reliance on convenience foods. These aren’t inherently bad, except when consumed too often or without inhibiting the quantity consumed at each sitting.

The cost of fresh foods is often higher than processed foods and can be stocked and stored for longer periods of time. Supermarkets often move high volumes of processed food at a very low profit margin – in the low single figures (sometimes called loss-leaders) . By comparison fresh produce can deliver storeowners profit margins as high as 40% or more.

For families who have little time to spend with children the idea of ‘treat’ food as an expression of love and devotion can’t be ignored. A mother whose child is in day-care while she works a full-time might well feel a desire to please her child or compensate with exaggerated ‘treats’.

I have to confess I have been guilty of this behaviour myself; sometimes packing a variety of foods for school lunches or asking what kind of snack bars my children wanted at the grocery store – and allowing dubious choices (those with cartoon characters or ludicrously garish packaging designs are usually the most toxic – and usually the inevitable choice of a child).

Having entered stage left I must make my own ideological point. The food choices I have made for my children have always been my choices. In spite of the fact that I ‘know better’, I have bowed to convenience and pleasing behaviour myself.

I don’t blame television advertising for those choices and I think any parent who does is copping out. That said, both of my kids are as skinny as beanpoles. My daughter, in particular, has little interest in crappy foods and eats in moderation. My son burns as many calories as he consumes through a busy regimen of activity. I’ve never subscribed to a ‘clean plate’ viewpoint about meals – when you are satisfied, stop.

If enough of us want better diets for our children then it is we as parents and consumers to choose that happier alternative.

If the price of fresh food is too high – demand that the manager of your supermarket take note of your concerns. Shop around, start a blog, form a group…take action.

It is too easy to sit back and rely on vested interest groups to duke it out, ostensibly on our behalf, while we feign helplessness.

Likewise it is not the role of central government to regulate what we feed our kids (especially when the parliament has its own ideological divisions). I am not sure I am interested in the opinions of Gerry Brownlee (Nats), Parekura Horomea (Lab) or Russel Norman (Green) when it comes to the nation’s diet.

The new advertising standards seem silly to me in places. There are snags in them that make the creation of messages to promote food and drink absurd (rather like Coca-Cola’s claim to create happiness…when there is nothing in any data to suggest it has that magical capacity).  Beware existential pap that implies a mood or positive association with the brand that has no substance.

Functional messages about better food choices will be subject to the same fetters as those for highly occasional foods – like KFC or Oreo cookies. Vocal members of the public will, undoubtedly, snipe at them in spite of the best intentions of the advertiser – especially if the axe they grind is intended to chop all advertising of food that children might eat from the screen.

In effect the new standards must apply to all foods advertised if children are likely to be exposed to the message. According to the law firm AJ Park: “The Code applies to all advertising that influences children.  This is a subtle change from the previous code, which regulated advertising to children.  While not a major change, it’s now clear you need to think about the impact your ad could have on children regardless of whether they are the target audience or not.”

I couldn’t help but laugh when I read that some of the Code was informed by a desire to comply with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
I assume that is same United Nations that sanctioned the illegal occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan that has resulted in the indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds – if not thousands of children?

We have odd priorities and sometimes even odder responses to problems in New Zealand.


Affiliate Links

Advertising to Children (Essential Viewpoints)
Advertising to Children on TV: Content, Impact, and Regulation
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual

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