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The weight of advertising to our kids presents a taxing problem

By Troy Duncan - posted Thursday, 8 August 2002

Most of us are now aware that Australians are getting fatter. Seven million of us are overweight or dangerously obese. More and more people are dying from diet-related afflictions such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, strokes and cancer, placing obesity in the same basket as AIDS and smoking as a health crisis of monumental proportions. Once known as a disease restricted to adults, type-two diabetes is now being found in epidemic proportions in the nation's child population. So why are Australian kids looking like the fat-bottomed food pyramid rather than at it? I argue that television advertising and advertising in general is the most significant factor turning Australia into a nation of fat.

As your children watch their daily dose of cartoons of a morning or evening, they will be bombarded by seductive advertising from companies gunning for a share of their minds (and your money). More money is being spent on commercially molesting your kids than ever before ($2 billion US annually). More and more companies are using our best child psychologists to turn your kids into little consumerists before they shed their diapers. They now know that toddlers as young as two become familiar with brand logos, three-to-seven-year-olds go for products which will transform themselves into something else and eight-to-12-year-olds love to collect things.

Advertising is known to have a significant effect on a child's development. Commercials which advertise the latest in fashion or the newest toy craze are attempting to render children inferior if they don't buy it. They play on your child's insecurities, increasing their pester power and overall desire for material goods. So how can you blame little Timmy for not wanting to buy those new Nikes that, incidentally, have been marked up 400 per cent from their original production value, or young Sally for wanting to race down to McDonald's to collect the latest Happy Meal Toy. If they don't by it, they aren't cool.


Despite all the health education campaigns, confusion still abounds about what a suitable diet is. As far as the increase in obesity is concerned evidence suggests that Western countries' consumption of mostly simple carbohydrates, heavily processed foods and saturated fats is the major cause - not surprisingly the types of foods that are heavily advertised during children's programming. The advertising also sells convenience. With working hours prolonged, parents often need little persuasion to give their kids foods that take less time to prepare - packets of chips, biscuits and muesli bars. These convenience foods and fast foods are more than likely to have a high fat and sugar content and simple carbohydrates. Could the seemingly innocuous combination of fat, sugar and salt be the most profitable scientific breakthrough in history? They can't sell cigarettes to kids, but they can still get 'em hooked on fatty foods and caffeinated soft drinks.

As we welcome home our all-conquering Commonwealth Games team, the illusion that we are a sporting nation is perpetuated further still. Since our failure at the Montreal Olympics in 1976, our elected officials have spent millions on developing programs for elite athletes (each gold medal in Sydney cost us an estimated 50 million dollars!). We might be obsessed with sport but we are ever more confusing spectating with actual participation. According to the AIS, Australia is just like any other Western Industrial country - less and less of us are getting out and exercising (only about 30 per cent of the population).

The interesting paradox here is that advertising, and popular culture in general, are also making many children - girls in particular - thin. Dangerously thin. Why? Because thin is in. Anorexia and bulimia nervosa are the new fads aspired to by middle class women and girls throughout the Western World. The persistent images of celebrity skinnies, and stick insects parading the latest fashion in beauty magazines corresponds with a dramatic increase of these eating disorders in the past 20 years. Official figures state that around 300,000 Australians suffer from anorexia and bulimia, but let's face it - most women (and some men) are obsessed with their weight and feel they need to attain a Hollywood-defined beauty.

And soon, if the market fundamentalists get their way, your kids will be brainwashed at school - widely held as the Final Frontier by marketers. That's right, if governments continue to spend less on public schooling, it'll be open slather in the classroom. In the US for example, students are required to sit through a current affairs program jam packed with advertisements, use an internet browser that inundates them with 'micro targeted' ads and, wait for it, even textbooks that ask students to calculate the diameter of an Oreo cookie!

So what can we do to protect children - and ourselves for that matter - from the commercial crusade and become a healthier nation? Surely we need to watch less television, get the kids away from the PlayStation, and get out more. Watching your favourite footy team might get your heart racing, but it won't get you fit. Secondly, as one of the few nations (along with the US, UK and New Zealand) allowing advertisers a free-for-all during children's programming, we need tough regulations on advertising food to kids. There needs to be some kind of campaign - similar to that of the anti-smoking movement - that warns consumers of the dangers of junk food and promotes healthy eating. Some have suggested such a campaign could be paid for through a 'fat tax' on nutritionally poor foods.

Whatever is to be done, our governments cannot allow this commercially induced crisis to continue any longer.

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About the Author

Troy Duncan is a freelance journalist.

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