The chocoholic excesses of Easter provide the ideal cue to discuss the effect of advertising on obesity. And, I suppose, the crucifixion of advertising by do-gooders who have no idea whatsoever of the deeper psychology of the marketing communications process but who just want someone or something else to blame other than themselves.
I recall a couple of years ago, a meeting of a group of “influential international obesity experts” a global conference in Australia, who called on the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ban junk food advertising.
It was another voice adding to the demand for action by the WHO to stop a large portion of the world from eating itself to death.
A few weeks later, a survey showed that in spite of abject global poverty, more than half of the world’s population was obese.
And just as tobacco ads are banned virtually worldwide now, along with advertising to children under the age of 16 in many countries in the European Union, and of course, the impending restrictions on liquor advertising here in South Africa, so too is the prospect of a ban on junk food advertising in most developed countries is as inevitable as sunrise.
What I find infuriating is that these advertising bans amount to selective morality of the worst possible kind.
And one has to question the motives of politicians when it comes to outlawing ads. Because they know perfectly well that banning advertising is simply the easy way out. It is a politically correct action that negatively impacts on only a tiny minority of voters – the businesses concerned and the ad industry.
So, government has no fear whatsoever of toyi-toying protest marches, losing contributions to party coffers at election time and are absolutely guaranteed to have the support of the vast majority of voters.
Simply because the advertising industry in most countries has done such an appalling job at educating the consumer into what advertising is actually all about, the general impression of the average Joe right now is that it is a trivial pursuit and complete waste of money.
Just listen to any phone-in show on a talk radio station when the subject of advertising is raised to get a very clear picture of how ignorant the public is with regard to advertising and just how inconsequential advertising is, in their opinion, in the greater scheme of economic things.
Governments, the WHO and other organisations that choose advertising bans as the easy way out must surely know that the reason why children love junk food is simply because there is a complete lack of parental control and not because kids blindly follow everything advertising tells them to do.
After all, I have never yet seen an advertisement for tik, crack cocaine or promoting ‘sports’ such as ‘surfing’ on the roofs of trains.
Right now one of the biggest problems the mass media in South Africa has is that they battle like nobody’s business to reach the 16 to 24 year old age group.
And if the mass media can’t reach these kids, then how on earth is advertising managing to influence them? Research has already shown that things that are popular with kids today – iPods, cellphones, SMS-ing and Mxit along with current teenage clothing fashions – do not result from ad campaigns but rather peer pressure.
Banning junk food ads aimed at adults will not make an iota of difference either because the addicts are just that – already addicts. The only thing that will make them curtail consumption of junk food is if the fast food outlets are closed down. And even then they’d probably make up their own – the fixings of which are readily available at any supermarket.
Which means that if the WHO wants to stamp out obesity it will have to try some other way of persuading kids to stop eating themselves to death. Banning ads isn’t going to achieve anything because kids aren’t even seeing the ads, let alone reacting to them.
I believe that what is happening in this country right now is that all these strident calls to ban advertising comes from parents who are trying to get government to take responsibility for bringing up their kids. Parents who are probably too busy or just plain scared of confronting their own kids and start laying down the law in terms of social behaviour and eating habits.
I remember about the years ago talking to a newspaper chief executive in South Africa about the then impending ban on tobacco. I asked him why the media industry was not contesting this more vigorously and his response was that a ban on tobacco was inevitable and that no amount of protest would stop it from happening. He was probably right. It is clear that what the media or advertising industry has to say is of no interest to government whatsoever.
He also commented that the media and ad industries should let government have its tobacco bans because even though it meant losing hundreds of millions of rands in advertising revenue, there were always new products such as cellphones coming on to the market that would fill the gap in adspend. He was convinced that the ad bans would stop at tobacco and go no further.
The problem is, now that governments have got on to an ad banning roll and have found it to be a politically safe thing to do, they will not stop at tobacco, liquor, junk food and advertising to children.
Already more products are being earmarked – dairy products and cars being just two of many already identified.
How long before hordes more foodstuffs and other products are added to the list – dairy products, sugar, confectionary, potato chips, soft drinks? Television? Motorbikes? All things that the lobbyists believe can kill children one way or the other.
Because the problem is that overdoing the consumption of anything is not good for any human being and right now advertising is being accused of forcing people to consume more than they should.
Oh, how marketers wish advertising were that powerful.
There is no question that this and the general moral decline of modern society, it is time that parents started taking control of their children again. And instead of trying to get government to protect their kids by banning advertising, they should be leading by example and applying some discipline.
And government, instead of reacting so superficially and subjectively, should dig deeper into the problem and realise that with the cost of living today in many cases both parents simply have to work to survive. And look at ways of giving them some sort of practical support that will allow them to bring up their children.
Banning advertising is nothing more than a limp-wristed, patronising gesture that will create more problems than it will solve.
Follow Chris Moerdyk on Twitter @chrismoerdyk
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