Kids + health = ad ban?

We've heard it all before. Some interest groups call for regulations on advertising. The ad community responds with self-regulatory gestures, arguments about the unenforceable nature thereof and complaints about the injustices done to the good guys and the lack of conclusive scientific evidence. Some watered-down regulation is passed and life goes on.

We’ve heard it all before. Some interest groups call for regulations on advertising. The ad community responds with self-regulatory gestures, arguments about the unenforceable nature thereof and complaints about the injustices done to the good guys and the lack of conclusive scientific evidence. Some watered-down regulation is passed and life goes on.

But this time things may unfold differently, with far-ranging ramifications. And while the industry has embarked upon some good actions to stem the tide, we should recognize that this anti-marketing movement may persevere, no matter how reasonable the arguments presented by advertisers are. You see, this time it isn’t about adults who can be expected to grasp the concept of caveat emptor. This time it isn’t about preserving constitutional rights. This time it’s about children…at least for the time being. That changes the rules governing the debate and its likely resolution.

In March, the Chronic Disease Prevention Association of Canada hosted a conference on ‘Obesity and the Marketing of Food to Children.’ It assembled a panel to evaluate the best available legal, scientific or social research for the purpose of forming a policy consensus statement to inform public policy-makers, Canadians and the media. The conference was sponsored by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the B.C. Ministry of Health and the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

The panel called on Health Canada to define what constitutes ‘unhealthy food and beverages’ and to create regulations that ban all marketing of those products to children within two years. It also recommended that this ban include marketing to the parents and institutions that help children make food choices. Moreover, it recommended that all food marketing to children should be banned if an acceptable definition of ‘unhealthy foods’ cannot be agreed upon (word is that a committee to come up with that definition is close to being named).

The panel explicitly noted that the ban extended to include the Internet, promotional activity, product placement, etc. That would include Tim Hortons hockey and camps, Ronald McDonald House Charities and even the Milk Calendar.

That may seem extreme and unlikely, and I’d agree… if it were an isolated event. However, a recent national survey found that half of Canadians favour a ban on all advertising to children under 10. They feel advertising is misleading, damages children’s self-esteem and promotes unhealthy habits. All of this despite the efforts of the Advertising Standards Canada and its Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which pledged to either restrict child-directed advertising to self-defined ‘healthy foods’ or to drop all advertising on children’s programming by the end of 2008.

And while food may be the initial arena, it sets a dangerous precedent. How long before it creeps into other areas, like electronic games, cellphones and so on? Am I being a fearmonger?

As a member of the panel, I was privy to the submissions and the discussion. While it did include some activists, it also contained educators, authors, media figures and public policy experts.

In support of maintaining self-regulation, the panel heard comments like:

• ‘Scientifically speaking, there is no conclusive research that draws a causal link between food marketing and childhood obesity.’

• ‘According to nutritionists, most every food product is fine in moderation and some commonly assumed ‘junk foods’ are actually beneficial in moderation.’

• ‘Since we cannot isolate our children from media influence, we should instead focus our energies on media literacy programs.’

• ‘Not all advertising is bad; why paint everyone with the same brush?’

• ‘The products aren’t illegal…why should advertising them be regulated?’

• ‘How will schools, hockey leagues and other sponsorship beneficiaries replace the lost funding?’

All true. And yet they may prove irrelevant. The counter-arguments are frighteningly simple and hard to contest:

• ‘If advertising works, and children are incapable of discriminating reality from embellishment, then children are vulnerable, and it is our responsibility to protect our children.’

• ‘Regardless of whether 100% compliance is possible, the effort must be made.’

• ‘Governments and the public, not corporations, should be deciding the educational and social funding priorities of our society.’

• ‘Responsible firms are implicitly penalized by the real and opportunity costs incurred relative to less scrupulous firms. Regulation would even the playing field.’

I am not advocating either position. This is a philosophical debate, and there will be no empirical resolution. Now ask yourself: if you were a politician or policy-maker, whose interests would you be most likely to protect? Children change everything.

Ken Wong is a professor at Queen’s School of Business, and also finds time for consulting and speaking gigs as well as advisory roles. He can be reached at kwong@business.queensu.ca.