child health

Feb 1, 2012

Fat Free TV: helping families reduce junk food viewing

The British Heart Foundation recently released a report documenting how food companies

Melissa Sweet — Health journalist and <a href=Croakey co-ordinator" class="author__portrait">

Melissa Sweet

Health journalist and Croakey co-ordinator

The British Heart Foundation recently released a report documenting how food companies are marketing unhealthy foods to children online, using tactics such as free games, gifts and downloads, fun characters and social networking sites. The report is called: The 21st century gingerbread house: How companies are marketing junk food to children online.

It’s good to see that the tables are being turned – public health advocates are getting their online acts together to target the marketing to kids of foods high in fat, salt, sugar and energy.

The British Heart Foundation recently launched an online spoof featuring “the Lard Bar” and “five steps to junk food marketing success”.

Meanwhile, Cancer Council NSW is today launching an online information and advocacy initiative, Fat Free TV, identifying which TV shows are the best and worst when it comes to junk food promotion to kids.

The website explains: “Pick a program and you’ll not only find out how many junk food ads are in popular TV shows, you’ll also see how much energy, saturated fat, sugar and sodium your kids would be getting if they ate one serve of everything they saw advertised in an average episode.”

It says the worst offenders are Saturday AFL, Channel 9 Saturday family movie, The X Factor, Dancing with the Stars, The Simpsons, the Channel 10 Saturday family movie, Sunrise and Junior MasterChef.

Not surprisingly shows on the ABC and SBS receive the best ratings.

The site also encourages readers to send an email or video message to TV networks. Hopefully, there will be some reporting back on how many people did so.

In the articles below:

• Kathy Chapman, from Cancer Council NSW, says that the initiative will be empowering for parents but is only one part of the multi-pronged approach to tackling obesity.

Jane Martin, from the Obesity Policy Coalition, says that advertising co- and self-regulatory frameworks have failed to reduce children’s exposure to junk food advertising in any meaningful way.


Fat Free TV – one step towards tackling obesity

Kathy Chapman writes:

The growing influence of junk food advertising upon childhood obesity is a topic often debated on Croakey. Some call for banning junk food advertising when children watch TV and some contest whether ad bans will work, decrying a ‘nanny state’.

One cannot deny, however, the complexity surrounding childhood obesity and the need to act. One in four Australian children is considered overweight, and unfortunately a high proportion of these overweight children will become overweight adults, increasing their chance of chronic disease like cancer, heart disease and diabetes along the way.

Obesity is also costing us more than $58 billion a year. That’s four times more than what the NSW Department of Education and Training spends on funding our children’s education and training services. The NSW Department of Education and Training incurred total recurrent and capital expenses of over $14.4 billion in 2010-2011.

So it’s essential to put aside the rhetoric, assess evidence and consider a multifaceted approach.

Tackling junk food advertising is part of the bigger picture. It’s all about setting healthy habits for life early on as prevention is better than a cure.

Admittedly junk food advertising to children is a bugbear of mine and it’s an issue I feel strongly about. Children are like sponges, noticing everything. So when it comes to advertising, they remember the jingles, the tempting toy offers, and the ‘coolness factor’.

Children remember the ads and more often than not they want what they see. Of course, this is exactly what junk food advertisers want, as young children successfully targeted now will have a brand allegiance for life. In fact, the Australian food industry spent more than $400 million on marketing in 2010. They spend big bucks because it makes them big bucks.

How does this translate to the shopping trolley? Research shows (eg McDermott et al article here) on average, children pester their parents 15 times in every trip to the supermarket and are successful in half of these attempts.

The main question we need to ask ourselves in light of Australia’s current levels of obesity is do we really want to surround children with so many enticing junk food ads?

Evidence suggests that the more junk food advertising children see, the more likely they are to prefer high fat, salt or sugar foods.

And so it becomes an uphill battle for parents to get their kids to eat healthily.

But like David against Goliath, it is possible for parents to have a say and thwart the junk food onslaught.

Helping parents understand how junk food ads can influence their kids is one such strategy. By having information at their fingertips parents can then make choices on what their kids are exposed to.

This week Cancer Council NSW launched Fat Free TV Guide, an interactive website which allows parents to search over 100 popular TV shows, rating and ranking the best and worst, based on how much junk food is advertised to children.

For example, you may be surprised to learn that the Saturday AFL, Saturday night family movies and X-Factor have topped the list, with children exposed to 26 junk food ads for things like chocolate, high sugar and caffeine energy drinks, and fast food chains over a six hour viewing period. So with this knowledge parents may choose to turn the TV off, record these shows (to skip the ads) or mute the ads.

Like it or not, we live in a brand driven society and big businesses aren’t going to stop junk food ads without a fight.

In the absence of regulations, the Fat Free TV Guide gives parents a little knowledge to help them even up the playing field. But let’s be clear, this is only one part of a wider solution in our approach to junk food advertising and reducing childhood obesity.

• As Health Strategies Director for Cancer Council NSW, Kathy is responsible for leading cancer prevention work, focusing on encouraging healthy living. She is passionate about making healthy choices the easy choice for Australians, young and old and she is one of the leading Australian researchers on junk food marketing and pester power. As a qualified nutritionist, she is also a foodie who enjoys cooking for family and friends.


TV sends mixed messages

Jane Martin writes:

There’s a clanging insincerity to Network 10’s 1 Million Kilo Challenge,which kicked off on Monday.

To tie into its current series of weight loss programs, Network 10 is sponsoring “a free initiative to make Australia a healthier place.”

“C’mon Australia, let’s kick start 2012 and lose 1 Million Kilos together!” an enthusiastic and healthful voice spruiks from its microsite.

Now while this may be a well-intentioned corporate social responsibility activity by the network, designed to leverage off the popularity of its diet shows, it’s difficult to take it seriously when this is also the network that brought us the first prime time program based on advertiser-generated content – It’s a Knockout.

To be creating TV programs with McDonald’s on one hand and trying to encourage Australia to shed 1 million kilos with the other seems at extreme odds.

Junk food advertising is one of the key drivers of childhood obesity in this country and TV advertising (despite the emergence of new cheaper media) is still the cornerstone of most campaigns.

It’s a Knockout is a good example of the level of infiltration that junk food companies have on Australian TV. They have gone beyond advertising in the breaks, they’re now embedding their messages in programs.

And they’re doing it freely because the advertising co- and self-regulatory frameworks fail to reduce children’s exposure to junk food advertising in any meaningful way.

While they restrict junk food marketing during programming directed primarily to children, the restrictions do not apply at the times the highest numbers of children watch television. To assume children only watch cartoons after school and not popular prime time programs such as the Biggest Loser and It’s A Knockout is unrealistic, and above all untrue when you look at the demographics for the ratings.

The self-regulatory framework also restricts unhealthy food advertising content that is primarily directed to children, but fails to recognise that advertisements aimed at multiple audiences (such as families or adults and children) can also have a significant effect on children’s food choices.

Added to this, the absence of any sanctions or penalties for breaching the self-regulatory framework means that junk food companies and broadcasters are continuing to flout their even limited obligations without fear of punishment.

A recent review of the fast food industry’s compliance with its code looked at only two short periods of advertising in 2010 and 2011 and identified a number of ads that failed to comply, including five different McDonald’s TV ads using Shrek 4 characters.

A new website launched today, Fat Free TV, aims to help parents reduce the amount of junk food ads their children are exposed to by highlighting the programs saturated in unhealthy advertising and those with healthier ads.

It also has an advocacy component where parents can email the networks directly calling for ‘Fat Free TV’.

Cynics would say that the networks aren’t going to stop taking money from major unhealthy food producers, but then if Network 10 is serious about its 1 Million Kilo challenge, maybe there’s a chance.


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