Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 15-July-2005, Vol 118 No 1218
Challenging beliefs about the marketing of food
Robert Quigley, Carolyn Watts
The marketing of high fat-, salt-, sugar- and energy-dense foods is now firmly in the gaze of parents, the community, and health professionals as a vector (cause) of disease.
Maher et al1 have provided a reminder to us all that the environment in which we live has significant impacts on the obesity epidemic in New Zealand. In a small pilot study, the authors have measured the amount and content of food advertisements, and types of food available nearby to secondary schools. It is a simple and well-conceived study that begins to map out the obesogenic environment of New Zealand.
Maher et al step outside the current paradigm and rightly look upstream at what determines our children’s health. We should not be surprised by their results—because a walk around any neighbourhood will show that our environment is sick. Our environment is not normal. We should not be surprised that our children are growing fat when their world is saturated with unhealthy messages. Put simply, we need to focus more on the causes of the causes and less on the individual.
The ‘marketing’ that our children are exposed to is all-encompassing—and Maher et al have only scratched the surface of what children are exposed to. Marketing long ago stepped from the realm of providing information about products so that consumers have information to make healthy choices, into a propaganda mode of selling values, visions, and concepts—to which products are aligned.2,3
The propaganda around fast food and soft drinks is that they are ‘healthy choices’ which can be part of a ‘healthy diet’—directly marketed by our nation’s elite athletes.4 As McDonald’s own marketing agency has said, McDonald’s Eat Smart Be Active campaign has maintained low sales of the Salads Plus menu, but has given parents (or ‘gatekeepers’ as they are called by the marketers) the permission to eat at McDonalds—with a subsequent rise in sales of traditional burger-and-fries products.2
In election year, we are again surrounded by the rhetoric of ‘individual choice’, as though this is a panacea for all ills. However whether an individual chooses a healthy diet is much more influenced by the availability, affordability, and accessibility of food than that individual’s knowledge about healthy food choices. Choice is important—but we argue that the right to choose a healthy diet has been all but removed from children today. We live in a world where the saturation marketing/propaganda of unhealthy food is the norm and environments support unhealthy choices—and yet we continue to be surprised that we are in an obesity epidemic.
Parental and personal responsibility are key agents in the propaganda of food companies—if only people were educated about what a healthy diet is and had better food labelling (for example), they’d be empowered to make the healthy choice.
But honestly, what kind of choice are we offering our children when:
Actually, commercialism directs their life and yours.
Choice has been hijacked by marketers in a similar way with statements such as ‘everything is OK in moderation’ and ‘eat a balanced diet’. However, choice is not positive when the ‘choices’ being offered are not healthy choices. Interestingly, when you look at the Ministry of Health’s recommendations there is no mention of moderation or balance—the Ministry’s recommendations actually make sense—‘eat less fatty, salty and sugary foods, eat more fruit and vegetables, eat a variety of nutritious foods’.6 Providing a choice of unhealthy foods so that the diet is well balanced with junk does not equate to healthy eating.
According to the World Health Organization, the heavy marketing of energy-dense foods and fast-food outlets is a probable cause of obesity.7 This is backed up by a systematic review of the evidence prepared for the British Office of Communications that states ‘....the public will never find it credible that an industry that spends huge sums each year advertising food to children on television does so with no actual (or intended) effect on children’s food consumption’.8
In the most comprehensive systematic review of evidence, prepared for the British Food Standards Agency, the authors concluded that food advertising can influence children’s food preferences, their purchase behaviours and what they eat.9
We need to be much more radical than just banning TV advertising of high fat, high salt, and sugar foods to children. We need to be much more strategic and comprehensive.
Rather than focusing on advertising alone we need to broaden our focus to unhealthy marketing as a whole by limiting the amount of promotion, product development, sponsorship, placement, pricing, and advantageous distribution of unhealthy options. Along with limiting unhealthy marketing, we can also increase ‘healthy marketing’.
We acknowledge that banning TV advertising alone would be spectacularly ineffective at reversing the obesity epidemic, but this should in no way be read as a reason not to include it in a suite of interventions to tackle obesity. The question is not whether we should ban TV advertising of junk food to children, but what else should we do to create a healthy environment for children, where healthy eating is experienced as the norm?
While the Government’s approach to preventing childhood obesity is well directed (on paper at least through Healthy Eating Healthy Action), it is sadly under-resourced—both in staff and financial commitment. While there are some components of the strategy that target environmental change, these are too few given the significance of this area. We need to re-balance our efforts, so that additional attention focuses on the causes of the causes rather than on the individual. And we should be aware that the food and advertising industries will resist such refocusing.
Health professionals must unite against the dominant paradigms that are prevalent in our society. The health system must be reoriented to focus a more significant proportion of its efforts to targeting upstream determinants
If we do not take on this challenge, no-one else will; if we do not advocate for healthy environments, no-one else will. And if we do not believe that radical change is required, no-one else will!
Competing interests: R Quigley and C Watts have coauthored several scientific papers and published documents on what works to prevent obesity and overweight, risk factors of the disease, and the obesogenic environment. C Watts is chair of Agencies for Nutrition Action (ANA) and a member of the NZ Dietetic Association. R Quigley is a member of the ANA Scientific Advisory Committee and a member of the NZ Dietetic Association. The authors’ views are their own and do not represent the organisations to which they are affiliated.
Author information: Robert Quigley; Carolyn Watts; Directors, Quigley and Watts Ltd, Wellington
Correspondence: : Robert Quigley, Quigley and Watts Ltd, PO Box 25-201, Wellington. Fax: (04) 472 0144; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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