Zach Berger, MJLST Staffer
The goal of advertising is to persuade consumers to purchase the advertised product. Advertising, as a form of commercial speech, is given considerable legal protection. Despite these protections, and with the rise of obesity in the you of America, advertising has become a topic of debate in the past several decades. As discussed in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology article Food Advertising and Childhood Obesity: A Call to Action for Proactive Solutions by Roseann B. Termini, Thomas A. Roberto, and Shelby G. Hostetter, many theorists believe food advertising targets children “who are too young an immature to distinguish advertising puffery from truth.” Children have limited cognitive abilities, and assume the advertised food products are healthy. Without government regulation or parental intervention, these children can maintain these misconceptions and carry the unhealthy habits they developed at a young age into adulthood.
Unfortunately, the percentage of obese children has only gone up since the aforementioned article was written. According to a recent study, 20.5% of twelve to nineteen year olds are considered obese in the U.S., as well as 17.7% of children age six to eleven. As mentioned by Termini et al., food advertising can contribute to childhood obesity in several different ways: Time spent watching TV detracts from time that could be engaged in exercise, food advertisements encourage unhealthy choices, food products partnering with TV/movie characters encourages children to buy unhealthy products, and children snack excessively while watching TV. Although some companies have attempted to self-regulate, these attempts are not always successful.
Termini et al. suggested several solutions to limited the damage done to children by unhealthy food advertisements. These included: banning fast-food advertising on child-targeted TV, regulating food advertisements directed at children as well as the companies that produce them, eliminating tax breaks for food advertising, and increasing parental intervention. One such solution was recently reintroduced with the announcement of the Stop Subsidizing Childhood Obesity Act. This law would amend the tax code by eliminating tax deductions for advertising that is directed at children and which promotes unhealthy food and drink. The revenue this law would bring will go towards funding the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.” As the name states, this program provides fresh fruit and vegetables to all students at participating schools.
Overwhelming evidence suggests that the programs children watch on TV influences their eating habits. Although some of the onus is on the parents to supervise what their children eat, more consistent regulation of food advertising can help reduce childhood obesity. There is still a long way to go, but we need to be proactive if we want to have any chance of halting childhood obesity in its tracks.