Child obesity remedy requires parenting, not public service ads

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Obesity has been touted as the new American “epidemic.” With 140 million American adults clinically overweight or obese, it is certainly a valid national health concern. And, unfortunately, it appears that the epidemic is now spreading rapidly to American children. According to the American Obesity Association, 30.3 percent of American kids between the ages of 6 and 11 are overweight, and 15.5 percent are obese.

A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation released last Wednesday seems to point the finger of blame at the extreme number of televised food commercials that children see. According to the study, every year children between the ages of 3 and 7 see about 4400 food ads, kids aged 8 to 12 view a whopping 7600 ads, and teens aged 13 to 17 see 6000 ads. It comes as no surprise that a staggering number of these advertisements are for candy and other unhealthy snacks, greasy fast-food joints, and soda.

The study is expected to have an impact on the regulation of food advertisements geared toward children. Agencies and groups like the Federal Communications Commission, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other medical and child advocacy groups have been asking for some kind of regulation of advertisements that aim to sell food high in calories, fat, sugar, and salt to kids. The government has yet to impose any such regulations, but the National Advertising Review Council, an organization that advances self-regulation among advertisers, began its Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative last November. Eleven big fish in the advertising pond — including McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Co., and PepsiCo. Inc. — have signed on to the initiative to change at least half of their advertisements to promote healthier diet and lifestyle choices.

And while we’re all waiting with bated breath for advertising giants to “self-regulate,” the Ad Council and the American Heart Association, among other groups, have banded together to form the Coalition for Healthy Children. The coalition plans to use Shrek characters to create ads that will aim to get children to exercise and eat healthy foods. The Kaiser Foundation’s study did point out that children see very few public service announcements. Kids under eight see one health-directed TV ad for every 26 food ads, pre-teens see one for every 48 food ads, and teens see one for every 130 food ads.

The rush to create public service announcements (PSAs) to counteract food advertising seems futile. For one thing, the effectiveness of public service announcements is questionable. Admittedly, PSAs have come a long way, even over the last few years: Anti-drug campaigns have intelligently switched their messages from the alarmist, “Don’t smoke marijuana because you might hit an elderly man with your car while high,” (Remember that one?) to a more realistic and subtle, “If you get stoned all the time, you’ll end up sitting on your couch all day and won’t have a life.” While this realism-over-alarmism approach is an important way of making televised public service messages have more of an impact, the large majority of youths could still care less about talking heads preaching to them from the TV screen.

Though it is certainly a smart move on the part of the Coalition for Healthy Children to use popular movie characters to lure kids into their message in the same way that food advertisements often capture the youth demographic, fighting fire with fire still doesn’t get down to the root of the problem. Even if kids do watch Shrek and Donkey playing soccer outside or eating apples instead of a Snickers bar, they’ll still be sitting in front of the TV, munching on Doritos or having a Coke. The best way to prevent and eradicate child obesity probably isn’t having them passively absorb health-centric messages while being a couch potato in front of the television.

The best way to prevent and eradicate child obesity would be to turn off the TV altogether. Seeing as kids aren’t likely to switch off the television of their own accord, it’s the job of their parents. Advertising is only going to get a whole lot more pervasive in our culture. Relying on televised public service announcements to counteract the bombardment of ads is useless and dim-witted. PSAs are no replacement for parenting.

It is the responsibility of parents not only to ensure that their children are eating nutritiously, but also that they are physically active and healthy. To expect or require food producers to cut back on their marketing implies that neither parents nor children have the desire or ability to think independently of advertisements. Though younger kids may not have the analytical skills necessary to see through advertisers’ marketing schemes, parents certainly should. And since parents control the finances, it’s as simple as not buying foods like ice cream or “treating” the kids to McDonald’s.