There is lots of evidence that children’s health is getting worse in the world’s wealthier countries. There is a definite and significant rise in obesity, and also a rise in recent years in children’s body image disorders and mental health problems. It is easy to point the finger at advertising and look towards regulation as a solution, and according to the Bailey Review in Britain and a recent Unicef study in the UK, Spain and Sweden, parents are concerned over the influence of advertising and commercial pressures on children. However, in my work I have argued that what we should be looking at is not whether advertising harms children but, in relation to a specific harm that affects children (such as obesity), what role does advertising play in relation to all the other factors?
The specific contribution of media culture in general and advertising in particular is much contested. Few would claim that media have no effect whatsoever; such a claim flies in the face of common sense, the investment of the advertising industry, and half a century of research evidence. But nor are there grounds for scapegoating the media as the primary cause among the many others. Sorting out the various factors will allow us to be clear about the problem, proportionate in our policy interventions, and well positioned to evaluate their effectiveness
One of the key pieces of the puzzle is that, contrary to popular belief, the evidence does not show that younger children are more affected by advertising than older children or adults. On the contrary, such evidence as exists suggests that the influence of advertising is evenly spread across the age range. This is surprising to those who believe that media literacy training can reduce or avoid the effects of advertising. It is not surprising to those who observe advertisers spending substantial sums seeking to reach all age groups.
We often hear the argument that children under the age of about 8 don’t grasp that adverts are designed to persuade, and even once they understand this, they may not use this knowledge to avoid or critique adverts before about 12. The research behind this argument is generally agreed, but it misses the point. Yes, their relative lack of media literacy surely makes it unfair to direct adverts to young children. Gaining media literacy will help children make their own media choices. However, most children will choose to live in the same world as everyone else, the world of consumerism, celebrity and peer norms. And as the kids wise up, the advertisers will get ever cannier in designing advertising for them.
Society may or may not judge that it is unfair to advertise to children too young to understand what advertising is. But even if we implement media literacy programmes to improve their understanding, they will still be influenced by advertising, unless we expect them to turn away from commercial culture altogether. On health grounds, however, it does seem reasonable that society should try its hardest not to adversely affect young children’s health, because good health in the early years is the best means to prevent later ill-health, and because advertising – insofar as it largely promotes unhealthy foods – contributes to the wider array of factors that account for children’s health problems.
Advertising restrictions represent a relatively tractable policy tool while building more sports facilities is expensive, and changing parental behaviour, not to mention cultural values, is very difficult. Advertising regulation also serves a symbolic function: ironically, because it attracts such controversy, it sends a powerful signal that society judges the commercial pressures on parents and children, and the costs of undermining children’s well-being and development, to be unacceptable.
In summary, a large body of research evidence shows, although not without qualification and contestation, that advertising plays a modest but distinct role in relation to children’s diet and health. The fact that younger children tend not to understand the power of advertising while older children do understand it has not been shown to make a difference to dietary choices or health outcomes. Because most advertising is for unhealthy foods, the effects of advertising are generally negative. But if advertising instead promoted healthy foods, exactly the same power to influence could be harnessed to sustain positive effects.
This post is based on an address given on 1 December 2011, to the Public Hearing of the European Economic andSocial Committee(EESC) on the topic of ”Advertising for young people and children”. The EESC is considering possible actions, in the context of a forthcoming Communication on the Rights of the Child.