I thought 'Supersize Me" was a great consumer report,
a great free-market educator to a major health problem
in America (and the world). I found the advertisement
statistics and the public school dietary programs the
most poignant aspects of the documentary. I left
hoping that the movie would be widely seen, so
individuals and those who care for children would
consider the damages of obesity.
Unfortunately, I knew the State would lick it's lips
at the next opening opportunity to try to restrict
more of our freedom. I have been waiting for the War
on Fat for a decade. I have been waiting for the Fat
Tax. I have been waiting for restrictions on free
speech and the right to honestly advertise and present
your product. And, here it comes.
This editorial on outlawing fast-food advertisements
is not too informative, does not have much data or
science, but it raises a couple of questions. I came
across it, so I thought I'd pass it along to people
who might care. I'm sure there are much more
interesting writings on this topic out there, if you
are trying to form your personal opinion on this
issue. As far as the science goes, consider that the
burden of proof falls on those trying to restrict
liberty to protect the common good, not those trying
to preserve liberty.
June 11, 2004
The link between fat ad budgets and fat children
When my daughter was 6, she spent a morning watching
cartoons, during which she saw one commercial after
another for cereal, candy, and cookies. Inspired by
these messages, she grabbed her purse, drove to the
grocery store, and loaded up the car with Cap'n
Crunch, Skittles, and Oreos. That was all she ate for
The astute reader will notice a few hints that I made
this story up: Six-year-olds do not drive, and they
usually do not have access to large sums of cash. Even
if they did, their parents probably would notice if
they embarked upon a month-long junk food binge.
At a recent Cato Institute forum, Dale Kunkel, a
University of California at Santa Barbara
communications professor who wants the government to
fight obesity by restricting or banning food ads aimed
at children, confessed that "you could easily say,
'This is all the parents. The child does not drive to
the supermarket.' " But then the conversation would be
very short, and all the people who came to Cato
expecting an hour-long debate would go away
So let's set aside for a moment the question of
whether parents have a right not to be nagged. Let's
ask instead whether there's good reason to believe
advertising plays an important role in obesity among
children, who are more than twice as likely to be
overweight as they were two decades ago.
Todd Zywicki, director of the Federal Trade
Commission's Office of Policy Planning, noted a
problem with drawing a link between fat kids and fat
ad budgets: If anything, children are less exposed to
food commercials than they were when they were
thinner. The frequency of food ads has not increased,
while kids are spending less time watching broadcast
television and more time playing video games, using
computers, or watching cable TV, DVDs, or
videotapes—media with fewer or no food ads.
Another inconvenient fact: Places where advertising
food to children is illegal, such as Sweden and
Quebec, do not have noticeably lower obesity rates
than otherwise similar places with different policies.
To test the plausibility of the idea that advertising
has a substantial impact on weight, Zywicki asked his
audience to imagine a fat child who watches six hours
of Nickelodeon a day. Would you expect him to get
thinner if his parents switched him to six hours of
commercial-free PBS programming?
Probably not. "Watching too much TV is going to make
you fat," Zywicki said, since it's a sedentary
activity and people tend to snack while they watch.
But if advertising had the influence its critics
suggest, "the PBS diet would work."
And while you're contemplating the kid on the couch,
don't forget the dog in the corner. "Our dogs are
getting overweight for exactly the same reasons we
are," Zywicki noted. "They're eating too much and
exercising too little. They're not watching too much
None of this is conclusive, but in a free society the
burden of proof ought to be on those who want to
restrict speech in the name of protecting children.
Kunkel conceded their case is less than airtight,
saying advertising should be viewed as a "risk factor"
for obesity, not as a force that inevitably makes kids
fat. "There may be countervailing factors in their
lives that compensate for the effects of media
exposure," he said.
Which brings us back to parents. Since rising weight
trends appeared in adults before they showed up among
children, it looks like kids are imitating their
parents' habits. "For better or worse," Zywicki said,
"kids eat what their parents eat."
In his book Food Fight, Yale obesity expert Kelly
Brownell—who, like Kunkel, wants to eliminate
advertising to children—says, " It is easy to blame
parents." No, it's not. It is easy to blame big
corporations. Blaming parents means expecting them to
take an active role in monitoring their kids' diets.
As New York University nutritionist Marion Nestle,
another ad banner, suggests in her book Food Politics,
that is not a popular message. "Most parents of my
acquaintance tell me they are constantly arguing with
their children over food choices," she writes. "Many
prefer to reserve family arguments about setting
limits for dealing with aspects of behavior that they
consider more important."
Please. If parents don't have the wherewithal to say
no when their kids ask for something they saw on TV,
their problems go far beyond the risk of chubby
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