This week Kellogg’s announced that it would stop advertising high-sugar and high-calorie content cereals to children.
While we may applaud Kellogg for doing “the right thing”, we would be foolish to think that Kellogg’s action will do very much to fix childhood obesity and nutritional health problems.
The problem is big, complex, and the social harm runs into the hundred of billions of dollars. Economists use the term “externalities” to describe the negative consequences of legal and normal firm behavior. Usually the cost of the negative consequences is paid for by others. The food industry legally goes about its business, while childhood obesity and its associated costs are absorbed within the health care system (private and public) or simply not paid for all, resulting in a diminished quality of life for the children.

Though there is no easy solution to childhood obesity, it is absolutely clear that advertising to children is a big part of the problem. Accordingly, advertising to children should be banned. Product placement schemes like the one used by Neopets, the on-line virtual pet site owned by Viacom, should also be prohibited. The contracts that schools that have signed that permit fast food franchises to operate in schools must be rescinded.
Regulation is required to combat the increased sophistication of business as it moves down the age ladder (the food chain) as it seeks to get to younger and younger children. Advertising has become an instrument by which we addict children to harmful consumption rather the legitimate and necessary offering of products to consumers. I like advertising, just as I like a good glass of wine. Neither ought to be for children.
No doubt, the advertisers will insist on their first amendment rights. Those rights apply to adults, not children. Many children, especially the poor, who have been abused by advertising are unable as adults to change the patterns of harmful behavior learned as children. Captive children turn into captive adults incapable of exercising their first amendment rights.
100 years ago, William Wordsworth, the great romantic poet wrote:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!


Iñigo Fika November 5, 2007 - 6:21 pm

Despite the long time passed since you wrote this article, I would like to add a comment on it:
No one can doubt of the potencially harmful influence that advertising can cause on kids. In my opinion, this is particularly serious when they are the target, because that’s when the “malicious” firm is really pulling the strings that twist a kid’s mind.
However, I wonder: how realistic is it to pretend the government to protect kids (and why not the captive adults too) by interfering in the advertising world??
There are some cases that are evident: enormous sizes in the pop-corn boxes in the cinema, fast food restaurants advertising 1000 cal. burguers, crude sexual messages in kid’s products, etc.
No doubt the government should act in these extreme cases, but a generalised banning attitude will never be effective on the long run. Marketing departments are experts in using not only direct but also indirect communications.
Through “hidden” images, sounds, grins, clothes or movements they can make an adult’s and a kid’s mind evoke what they want it to, and this is really difficult to keep under legal (and burocratical) control except in the most obvious cases (which are the vast minority in the advertising world).
So, what would the alternative be? Education. Again and again we find this word behind so many problems of the modern world. Culture, education, knowledge… they are the basic weapons that a kid and an adult need to defend themselves from aggresive and inmoral marketing. If we keep on saving people’s minds with artificial protections based on laws, rules, etc, we are only promoting a weak mind ignorant society which will be absolutely unprotected the day “Papa Government” is not there any more.

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