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Junk Food Advertising

Speeches in Parliament
Rachel Siewert 3 Mar 2011

Senator SIEWERT (Western Australia) (10.03 am)—One would wonder why advertisers bother spending millions of dollars on advertising. Given the two speeches I have just heard in this place, it is obvious that advertising has an impact; otherwise, advertisers would not be spending millions on it.

The Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising (Broadcasting Amendment) Bill 2010 amends the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 to encourage healthier eating habits among children and to prohibit the broadcasting of advertisements for junk food during certain times. The bill is not the sole thing we need to do to address obesity and associated diseases in our children, our juveniles and our adult population. The Greens have never ever said that—not once. This is part of the comprehensive approach we need to take to manage the obesity epidemic in our community. Some people are saying that we are going to be the peak of the healthiest generation and that life expectancy will in fact decrease from now because of our unhealthy habits. We have to do something about this epidemic.

The current restriction on advertising to children— people under 14 years of age—set out in the Children’s Television Standards 2009, applies from 7.00 am to

8.30 pm. The bill amends these times to cover the period between 6.00 am and 9.30 pm. A range of key stakeholder organisations, including the Obesity Policy Coalition, have argued that the existing time frame does not represent the actual viewing times of children in this age group. Those organisations support the extension of time to ensure the advertising restriction is effective.

In Australia, 62 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women are considered overweight or obese. High body mass contributes 7.5 per cent to the overall health burden in Australia, with type 2 diabetes at 40 per cent and heart disease at 34 per cent as the major risks. Obesity rates in Australia are generally increasing, so we quite clearly need to address this issue.

Currently in Australia the potential cost saving to the health sector would be $812 million—if we are able to eliminate, for example, just obesity issues. Those statistics give a brief snapshot of why it is so important that we address this issue. Not only are there some very important economic considerations but, most importantly, this is about the health of our community and future generations, ensuring that we have good health programs which generally improve the health of the Australian community.

Successive governments have run advertising and information campaigns to improve diets and increase physical activity with the aim of preventing or reducing obesity and improving our health. Despite these campaigns, obesity rates have continued to rise—the latest figures were released last week. This suggests that to date some of these programs may well not have been effective and that, if we are going to change behaviour, we need to provide different information. A lot of these campaigns have been undermined directly by advertising of products on television to our children. We need to refocus our social marketing campaigns, deal with economic incentives and, in some cases, change our legislative base—for example, by banning junk food advertising, an approach the Greens have been advocating for some considerable time as part of an integrated approach to dealing with this issue.

We need a greater understanding of consumer interaction. This conclusion is supported by research in behavioural economics which has shown that, in many cases, even when consumers have ready access to understandable information, they still fail to choose the products or the services which best suit their needs— because people may ignore or misinterpret relevant information or fail to act because of other barriers to them changing their behaviour.

Biases in consumer decision making are well known to traders of goods and services. They have large marketing budgets and present their products in the best possible light within the limits of the law. They may also exploit consumer biases to increase demand for their products. That is what advertising is all about— let us face it. The large amount of advertising generated by the manufacturers of junk food, for example, makes it very difficult for healthy eating messages to be effective. Again, it highlights the need for strong programs and a variety of programs to tackle this problem from a variety of angles. It also highlights the need for consumers to be involved in assisting in the advisory process, particularly talking to parents.

In marketing to children, advertisers have encouraged the phenomena of what has been called ‘label pester power’. This has been defined as the constant demand for parents to purchase items, be they clothes, toys, gadgets, or various other goods—in particular, food. Pestering consists of persistent nagging—that is, pleas which are repeated consistently for parents to purchase an item. This type of pestering is not as effective with parents as ‘importance nagging’. Importance nagging represents a more sophisticated means by which children claim that something is necessary for their educational or sporting progress, or for their general wellbeing, which is where the issues concerning food come in. Importance nagging takes advantage of parents’ desire to provide the best for their children, and plays on any guilt they may feel about not spending enough quality time with their children.

According to the Australian Centre for Science in the Public Interest, pestering strategies undermine parental authority, which is where we come to this business of ‘It’s all about parental authority’. Parents are forced to choose between being the bad guy by saying no to junk food, or giving in to incessant demands. This conflict in negotiation between parents and children is recognised as ‘co-shopping’, which is when children are in the shopping centre with their parents. Parents describe this as extremely stressful because of the constant purchase demands made by children. Anybody who has been in a shopping centre with children will understand exactly what I am talking about.

An increasing number of overseas findings agree that television commercials for sweets, snacks and fast foods are the mainstays of advertising which targets children. According to a 2007 study by the American Kaiser Family Foundation, half of all advertising time on children’s television is devoted to food advertising. What does that say about what advertisers want to do? They know their market. They spend an enormous amount of money advertising their products very creatively to children. That is why they advertise these products to children so that children will want to pester their parents to buy them. It is quite obvious. Product makers could save an enormous amount of money if they thought advertising was not working. Many advertisements associate physical activity with the products and highlight the health benefits to be gained by their consumption. It is often stressed that they contain ‘essential nutrients’.

The British Heart Foundation’s Children’s Food Campaign concluded that food marketing to children is almost always for unhealthy products, and this plays an important role in encouraging unhealthy eating habits which are likely to continue from childhood into adulthood. Further, evidence suggests that advertisements affect food choices at both brand and category levels— that is, a McDonald’s hamburger advertisement is likely to not only make it more probable that a person will buy a McDonald’s hamburger in preference to another brand but also that person will buy a hamburger per se. In other words, they will go out, they want a hamburger, but they will then go and buy a McDonald’s. In other words, there is evidence that advertising unhealthy foods to children influences not only which brands children choose but also the overall balance of their diet, encouraging them to eat energy-dense, salty, sugary or fatty foods in place of those which are more nutritious and wholesome.

The advertising industry introduced selfregulation—the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative—in January 2009. However, research including the Australian Food and Grocery Council report just this year—January 2011—found that one in five food advertisements in children’s programs were for high-fat, sugar and salt products. The self-regulation is clearly not working to effectively protect children.

One aspect of the responsible marketing and consumption argument is that, unlike tobacco, junk foods can be enjoyed in moderation without causing undue harm to children and adults. The Cadbury company maintains, for example, that its products can be enjoyed as a treat. However, at the same time as the Cancer Council of New South Wales points out, Cadbury has spent millions of dollars creating a new internet cartoon series featuring Freddo Frog. The marketing features puzzles, games and activities embedded within the cartoon and from which children can be involved in the cartoon’s development. The company claims this represents responsible marketing and does not have children featured. That is simply not responsible mar-keting and we believe we need to take action. (Time expired)

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