Daily, children, as well as adults throughout the United States and other countries, are barraged with advertisements. Advertisements are normally done via billboards, magazines, newspapers, television, and cash machine screens among others. However, television remains the most extensively utilized channel of advertisement chiefly because it reaches a higher number of audiences than the other communication media. Evidence from past studies shows that children force their parents and guardians to buy for them the goods they see advertised on television (Gorn and Goldberg, 1982, p.202; Coon and Tucker, 2002, p.427).
Indeed, television marketing has been shown to affect the health and dietary habits of children in different ways such as food demands, purchases, liking, and consumption of the promoted food products. Additionally, the promotion of food products generates misinformation among the children concerning the behaviors that are required to uphold optimum health and the nutritional worth of the marketed foods (Jeffrey, McLellan, and Fox, 1982, p.179).
For example, the consistent advertisement of soft drinks and fast foods has created the misperception that to uphold good health one should consume fast foods and drink Coke. The latent impact of television marketing on information, mindset, and conduct has created substantial concern among parents and child psychologists. A portion of this concern emanates from the general exposure of children to television. Children aged between 2 and 11 years and teenagers aged between 12 and 17 years spend on average a total of twenty hours every week watching television. Byrd-Bredbenner and Grasso (2000) state that, “by the time children graduate from high school, the time devoted to watching television will exceed the hours spent in school,” (p.61).
Theoretical framework and aspects of social imagination
In the past several decades, advertising aimed at children has received its fair share of criticism. According to a report by Burr and Burr (1976), majority of the American parents held strong doubts concerning the honesty with which products are advertised to children.
These parents exhibited a high level of suspicion about the perceived deceptive features of the advertisements. In the recent past, the American Academy of Paediatrics has articulated worries that advertising aimed at young children is illusory and manipulative (Ludwig and Gortmaker, 2004). Television marketing is viewed as scheming, creating longings that would otherwise not be significant, encouraging materialism, and suppressing creativity, inflicting stress and strain on financially poor parents, and negatively affecting parent-child associations (Burr and Burr, 1976; Spungin, 2004).
The precise cause of parental worries concerning advertising is that children are considered to be vulnerable. Unlike adults, children lack the cognitive abilities to comprehend the nature of advertising and lack the maturity needed to make wise decisions that influence their health or life. Even though it is broadly acknowledged that children aged five and above can comprehend the disparity between a program and an advertisement, and that, from the age of eight and above children, also comprehend the money-making objective of advertising, this does not imply that children are not affected by it.
Prior research on the behavioral impact of advertising has shown that watching television by children is directly related to demands for the marketed goods. A predominantly negative possible outcome of children’s advertising is the “pester power” or “nag factor” (Mazur et al., 2008). Spungin (2004) states that “advertising encourages children to nag their parents into something that is not good for them, or something they don’t need or the parent cannot afford” (p. 37).
The problem of the effect of television marketing on children’s food choices can be analyzed using several aspects of social imagination. From a functionalist perspective, television marketing aimed at children serves an important role in society. The enticing and deceptive advertising helps the companies to find loyal customers for their products thereby achieving their profit-making goals. The profits earned from the sale of these products, in turn, enable the companies to survive in the competitive global market. Symbolic interaction perspective can also be used to analyze the problem of television marketing food to children.
This perspective focuses on the meanings that people attach to everyday events and concepts (Ferrante, 2003). It is an indisputable fact that young children attach great meaning to foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar content such as confectionaries.
This is the reason why the companies that produce and advertise foods for children focus on such foods only. The companies know that if they market such foods to children, they are most likely to sell faster than if they were to market healthy foods such as vegetables. Lastly, the conflict perspective is useful in explaining the interaction that takes place between the marketing companies and young children. Young children lack adequate resources (information) to make informed food choices and will instead prefer foods that are attractive to their senses. The marketing companies take advantage of the ignorance of the children and intensively market unhealthy foods to them (Ferrante, 2003, p.41).
Content of the food advertisements aimed at children
The manufacturing industry has been blamed for targeting children as an accessible market for their products and services (McLellan, 2002, p.1001). Rodd and Patel (2005) state that, “in 1999, 12 billion US dollars were invested in marketing strategies directly aimed at children,” (p.710). Some scholars have conducted a comparative analysis of television marketing in developed countries. Evidence from such studies shows that advertisements that promote food products, toys, and entertainment are the most widespread advertisements aimed at children.
Nevertheless, food marketing comprises the greatest percentage of advertisements in almost all countries. In addition, advertisements of confectionery comprised one-fifth of all food advertisements. In-depth nutritional assessment of advertised food products showed that close to 90 percent of all advertised products are high in fat, sugar, and salt content (Kotz and Story, 1994, p.1298; Taras and Gage, 1995, p.650). It appears that the majority of food and beverages that are aimed at children encourage the direct opposite of a healthy diet and are in direct conflict with national dietary standards.
The study by Rodd and Patel (2005) was conducted using 41 hours of television programs produced particularly for children on the major British commercial and terrestrial channel, ITV1, between July and August 2003. The results of this study indicated that 95.3 percent of the total food/drink advertisements promoted food and beverage products that had high sugar and acidic content. Only 4.7 percent of the food adverts promoted low-sugar and acidic food products. Interestingly, none of the advertisements examined during the period promoted healthy food such as fruits and vegetables.
The results of this study were similar to those found by Chestnutt and Ashraf (2002) whose study made a comparison of the percentage of food advertisements that are potentially harmful to dental health between children’s and primetime television. Chestnutt and Ashraf (2002) found that 73.4 percent of advertising time is spent to market foods that are potentially harmful to dental health during children’s programs. This is contrary to only 18.6 percent of advertising time spent on advertising the same products during primetime television. This proves that television advertisements are rife with products that are potentially harmful to children’s health.
Social determinants of obesity in Australia
Australia is one of the developed countries with the highest number of food products advertised on children’s television programs. Several prior research studies show that the majority of the foods advertised on Australian television are high in sugar, fat, and salt content and low in nutritional value (Hill and Radimer, 1997; Neville et al., 2005). In the past two decades, the rates of obesity among children have increased dramatically in Australia and other developed countries.
Approximately 20 percent of all Australian children are obese or overweight. This is a worrying trend chiefly because children who are obese have a 25-50% probability of carrying the obesity into their adulthood (Chapman, Nicholas and Supramaniam, 2006, p.173). A large number of unhealthy food marketing on television is a major contributing factor to the obesity-enhancing environment. Even though the reasons and answers to childhood obesity are multi-faceted, it is indisputable that minimization of food marketing is one of the most crucial strategies for helping children to make healthy choices regarding the kinds of foods they consume.
Regulations of television food marketing in Australia are complicated and ambiguous. In particular, “the Australian Communications and Media Authority Children’s Television Standards operate alongside a system of self-regulation described by the voluntary Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice, which applies to all commercial broadcasting,” (Chapman, Nicholas and Supramaniam, 2006, p.173).
Both the CTS and the Industry Code of Practice do not have specific definitions concerning violations of each of the set of rules and regulations. In addition, the kinds of foods that can be marketed on television as well as the volume of advertisements that can be run on Australian television programs are not presently regulated. As a result, food and beverage companies have the liberty to advertise products that are attractive to children to boost their sales and profits.
The rising rates of obesity in the developed world have in the recent past been a topic of debate in forums of organizations such as the World Health Organization, the European Union as well as consumer organizations (Pettersson and Fjellstrom, 2006, p.14). Several recommendations have been proposed to reduce the effect of television marketing on food choices made by children. These recommendations include a reduction in the number of fats, sugar, and salt content in foods, regulation of television advertisements, and responsible marketing by the companies concerned. Several European Union countries have put in place legal constraints on advertisements to children.
Self-regulation also takes place about the acceptable codes of marketing actions, which marketers and media are required to comply with (Grey, 2005). The major values of such codes are that advertising targeted at children ought to be lawful, honest, socially responsible, and enhance public trust in the advertising. According to the International Chamber of Commerce, food/beverage and marketing companies should not use children to boost their sales and profits due to their lack of knowledge and experience, and vulnerability. In addition, advertisement of foods should not be done in a manner that will force children to persuade their parents to purchase the foods for them or that would weaken parental roles. Most importantly, advertisements aimed at children should not in any way demoralize a healthy eating lifestyle.
The content of fats, sugar, or salt in the advertised foods should be clearly and truthfully indicated to enable the consumers to know exactly what it is they are consuming. Unhealthy snacks should not be portrayed by advertisements as conventional meals. Kurnit (2005) states that “responsible marketing towards children is about balancing commercial selling with encouraging children’s well-being,” (p.11).
The utilization of self-regulation can be an effective means of achieving responsible marketing but it has to be accompanied by legal sanctions to ensure that food and beverage companies, as well as marketers, adhere to the set rules and regulations. It may also be advisable for governments to have more control over television marketing to ensure that food, beverage, and marketing companies do not take advantage of the vulnerability of children. This measure is applicable in cases where self-regulation does not work. In addition, schools and the media should embark on educational and awareness creation programs to educate young consumers on the nutritional content of foods and the nature of advertisements aimed at them. This would help the young consumers to make informed choices concerning foods and drinks.
Obesity, poor dental health, and general poor health affect many children in the developed world. Television food advertisement has been cited as the major reason behind these outcomes. Television marketing not only gives inaccurate information concerning the advertised foods but also encourages children to consume the products majority of which are unhealthy. The impact of television advertising on children’s choice of food can be minimized through self-regulation, responsible marketing, education programs, and governmental control where applicable.
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