Child obesity is a growing problem in Australia, with an estimated 2/3 of children considered overweight, 1/3 of which are considered obese. Coincidently, Australia not only has the most overweight children, it also has the highest proportion of junk food advertising on commercial television (Chapman et. al, 2006; Morton, 1990; Morton et. al., 2005). In the period between 1985 and 1997 the number of overweight children doubled, and the number of obese young Australian’s tripled (Booth et. al, 2003; Chapman et. al, 2006). Overweight children are 78% more likely to develop adult obesity and are particularly prone to health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, stoke, cardio vascular disease, and other health disorders and diseases (Hill et. al, 1997). Several recent studies have aimed to determine exactly how much junk food advertising is on commercial television, and studies have attempted to prove the link between the growing number of overweight children and the increase in junk food advertising on commercial television. The NSW Cancer Council of Australia conducted a thorough research into the proportion of junk food advertising, analysing over 760 hours of commercial television over a range of children’s timeslots and classified them according to Australian Guide to Healthy Eating (Children's Health Development Foundation and Deakin University, 1998). In this particular study, of the 10,983 advertisements analysed 31% were for food products, and 81% of food advertisements for unhealthy (high sugar, fat and salt content with little nutritional value) which equates to 25% of total advertising for unhealthy foods. Of the high proportion of advertising for unhealthy foods on Australian television, a time slots with the most advertisements per hour of food such as take away fast foods, frozen desserts, chip and crisps, high sugar content drinks such as cordials and soft drinks, and confectionary were shown during peak times for children watching television. The highest proportion on weekdays was during “family” television time between 6pm and 9pm, followed secondly during hours of children’s content between 3pm and 6pm. On weekends, the highest occurrence of junk food advertising occurred on Saturday mornings during children’s cartoon hours. The following table graphically depicts the findings of the study and compares the different time slots analysed.
Fig 1: No. of unhealthy advertisements per hour in different time slots (Chapman et. al. 2006)
The study concludes that there is certainly a focus for junk food advertising during time slots where children are most likely to be watching. The study also concluded that only 19% of food advertising and 6% of total advertising was aimed at promoting healthy/core food consumption and positive lifestyles. Another independent study has discovered that junk food advertising increased substantially during school holiday periods. The Australian Division of General Practice has determined that a child watching 2.5 hours of television a day is exposed to 406 junk food advertisements over the period of the summer school holidays, suggesting that junk food advertising is dramatically increased during the periods when children will be known to be watching more television. It appears that in Australia, junk food advertising is aimed at children due to the increase in advertisements during children’s peak hours, and the even further increase in the number of advertisements during school holiday periods. Further to this, marketing techniques including using pop culture figures such as ‘Shrek’ (who was used to promote over 30 unhealthy food products in 2007) to entice children, and competitions and free toys if you purchase junk food products to further attract children suggests that the Australian food industry is targeting children as the main consumer of their products. Who are the stakeholders?
There are many players in the issue which make it hard to determine who is responsible for the high proportion of advertising during children’s hours and the excess consumption of junk food by the youth of Australia. Commercial television stations (Channel 9, Channel 7 and the 10 Network) and Free TV Australia: Commercial television stations program advertisements during programming and determine which advertisements are aired during which programs. This is also based on advertising costs, which companies have paid for what programming slots etc. Advertising is a huge income raiser for commercial television and without it television stations would not be able to operate. The commercial networks themselves have the final say and to which advertisements will be shown during which programs. Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA): The ACMA is an Australian government agency whose main role is to regulate broadcasting content on Australian television. Because children are a particularly vulnerable minority group within society who are still developing cognitive skills, the ACMA controls Children’s Television Standards which aim to protect children by regulating what they are exposed to on commercial television. They set standards and regulation which determine levels and content of advertising on commercial television. Major food companies and food marketers: Large companies such as Kraft, McDonalds and Coca-Cola play a large role in the advertising content on commercial television. The companies and their advertising agencies create the commercials that are used by television networks during advertising. The food industry therefore plays a major role in the tactics used and information presented which lures children into wanting, buying and consuming unhealthy products. Techniques such as the use of popular characters and icons in society, the promises of free toys if you purchase certain products and exciting competitions are all marketing ploys by the manufacturers to help sell their products. Parents: Parents are usually the purchases of junk food products, and are ultimately the decision maker when it comes to a child’s diet. They are however a victim of junk food advertising, as the advertising entices children to want the products, and encourages them to consume the products, and often parents fall victim to the ‘nagging’ of children exposed to advertising. Coalition on Food Advertising to Children (CFAC): The CFAC is made up of several key organisations including: Australian Dental Association
Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association Australian Medical Association
Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity
Home Economics Institute of Australia
Public Health Association of Australia
Royal Australasian College of Physicians, Paediatric Branch Royal Australian College of General Practitioners
The Cancer Council Australia
Young Media Australia
Ms Kaye Mehta, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics, Flinders University Dr. Rosemary Stanton, OAM
Professor Mike Daube, Curtin University of Technology (Submission to the Australian Communications and Media Authority on the Review of Children’s Television Standards, 1997) The CFAC was formed in 2002 by a group of organisations concerned about the effect of junk food advertising on the health of Australian youth. They aim to improve the overall health, and future health of young Australian’s by significantly reducing the commercial promoting of food and beverages to children. Children: Children are considered vulnerable and highly influenced, and are therefore the target for food marketers in their attempt to get more people to consume their products. Children are also more dependent on entertainment sources such as television, making it highly likely for them to be exposed to marketing ploys of junk food producers. The inactivity of children and instances of child obesity is rapidly increasing. What are the ethical issues?
The main issue is that food marketers are using advertising techniques to deliberately lure young children into consuming their unhealthy products, which is leading to major health issues amongst the youth of Australia, with a dramatic increase in the number of obese children and associated health concerns amongst young members of society. This has resulted in several key stakeholders failing to address the issue and continuing the advertising/consuming cycle amongst young Australians. The AMCA has the responsibility to protect children from the possible harmful effects of commercial television content. This involves the moral duty to ensure that television content is appropriate for an audience considered vulnerable due to their lack of cognitive recognition of the harmful effects of unhealthy food on their health. It is the responsibility of the AMCA to ensure that the Children’s Television Standards create an ethical environment ensuring that content during (C) rated television is conducive to the safe and healthy upbringing of children. It is the ethical responsibility of all adult organisations to ensure that children are provided with a safe environment in which to develop. This involves all organisations which influence what children will chose and how they will behave. Therefore, the AMCA through their Children’s Television Standards have an ethical duty to ensure that negative health impacts on children are reduced as far as possible. Proper regulations and laws regarding television content will ensure television networks have proper guidance regarding what to program during certain time slots. In 2003, the World Health Organisations Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases Report_ _recognised that mass marketing of high fat, sugar and salt and low nutrient foods were a probably cause in the increasing incidence of obesity. Further to this report, the Institute of Medicine concluded that there is strong evidence that television advertising influences children’s food preferences, purchase requests and consumption habits in the 2-11 age bracket. Understanding the probable link between exposure to advertising on television and preference for food consumption, all key stakeholders have an ethical responsibility to ensure that an obesogenic environment is reduced. Parents should also have the right to raise their children in an environment which is conducive to healthy eating. They have the right to believe that Children’s Television Standards are protecting their children from messages of unhealthy lifestyles and corporations are not placing their commercial interest above that of their duty to protect vulnerable members of society. The main ethical issue in this situation is that food marketers are ignoring their moral obligation to protect the vulnerable members of society, and instead exploiting them which is leading to severe health risks amongst young Australians. Although parents play a large role in determining what their children eat, it is unreasonable and unethical for ACMA to place economic and commercial interests at higher value than promoting a healthy and safe environment for parents to raise their children. Children have an ethical right to be protected against influences that may harm their well being. There are many Government and non-government initiatives in action that support this right, and promote healthy lifestyles such as the 2&5 advertising initiative of the Government, and programs that encourage children to be active and exercise. However, they are often drowned out by the 25% of television advertising that encourages children to eat high fat, sugar and salt food and beverages, blatantly ignoring the ethical right of a child to be protected from harmful influences. Children do not have the cognitive understanding to critically assess the impact of advertised foods and encouraging children to eat unhealthy food through television advertising is detrimental to their health and wellbeing and therefore unfair and unethical. The ACMA currently has a set of standards which attempt to protect children’s interest under the Children’s Television Standards (CTS), however the CFAC has scrutinised this system, finding multiple cases of breach and lack of complaints being upheld due to the ambiguous and unmonitored system of standards currently in place. The breaches in current legislation prove that the current system is not upholding its duty to protect children from potentially harmful products. Junk food advertising also often uses deceptive techniques aimed to make children desire the product. For example, a very typical advertisement will depict a child in a school playground opening his/her lunch box to find an unhealthy treat, and as a result of possessing and eating the food product all the other children want to be his/her friend, deceiving naive children into thinking that consuming the product will make them popular at school. Similarly, an advertisement which depicts children with super powers after eating certain products is another deceptive method at luring children into wanting the product. Targeting audiences because they do not yet have the cognitive skills to recognise that eating the product will not give them super powers, or be popular at school is deceptive and highly unethical. Junk food advertisements do not disclose any health information regarding the risks involved in excess consumption. As medication, cigarettes and other potentially harmful products carry warnings as to the risks associated with excess consumption, the Cancer Council’s research found no junk food advertisements advising consumption in moderation or warning of the proven health risks associated with obesity. All consumers of products have the right to be warned of the potential health risks involved with excess consumption of a product. In summary, junk food advertising during children television hours ignores a child’s basic right to be protected from things that are harmful. Children do not have the ability to recognise the link between the unhealthy eating and poor health, and are therefore being targeted as primary consumers of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt with little nutritional value. Parents are also suffering as they are not being provided an environment which is conducive to a healthy lifestyle in which to raise their children. Furthermore, food marketers are using unethical techniques to advertise their products by deceiving children into believing certain things will happen to them if they consume the product, or luring children into buying the product by giving away free toys and competition entries. What are the alternatives available to the principle stakeholders? There are several options available.
1. Ban all junk food advertisements on television: This solution would make advertising of foods and beverages that are high in sugar, fat and salt and with little nutritional value to be banned entirely from commercial television. 2. Ban junk food advertising on television during children’s television slots: This would mean banning junk food advertising between 6am-9am and 3pm-9pm weekdays, and 6am to 9pm weekends. After 9pm junk food advertising is allowable. This is similar to alcohol advertising. 3. Make the rules (such as Children’s Television Standards) stricter and enforce them better: There are currently CTS in place banning such acts as deceptive commercials and disallowing the coupling of food and non-food products (such as a free toy) however they are often not enforced, or are too ambiguous to stop unethical means of advertising. A proper set of unambiguous rules outlining how frequently unhealthy foods can be advertised, and strict guidelines as to what information the advertisement is required to disclose need to be put in place, and an external Watchdog put in place to monitor what advertisements are allowed to be seen by children. 4. Leave the level and content of junk food advertising in place and place sole responsibility of a child’s eating habits with the parents: Ultimately it’s the parents who will buy the unhealthy food and allow their children to eat it, therefore the sole responsibility should be held with the parent. If they are unhappy with junk food advertising then they can turn off the television. What are the ethical arguments for the alternatives?
1. Ban all junk food advertisements on television: This would certainly alleviate the moral dilemma that junk food advertising to children is unethical, as there would be no chance of children being exposed to the advertising on television. However, it would take away the right for food marketers to promote their product to a wide audience, and could be argued as taking away the right for adults to be informed of the choice of products available to them. It also inhibits junk food manufacturers the right to a competitive market against other food products if advertising of their product is banned from free television. 2. Ban junk food advertising on television during children’s television slots: Although this would again alleviate the problem of unethical advertising to children, food marketers would see it as negatively effecting their ability to compete with other, more healthy food products. 3. Make the rules (such as Children’s Television Standards) stricter and enforce them better: This would certainly reduce the number of advertisements using unethical means of deception and trickery to lure children into buying products, but because many children don’t have the capacity to understand the health risks associated with a poor diet, even without the trickery children will still be more inclined to chose the sugary and fat products. 4. Leave the level and content of junk food advertising in place and place sole responsibility of a child’s eating habits with the parents: Although parents have the duty to raise their children in a safe and healthy manner, they also have the right to be able to raise them in an environment that is conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Parents’ capacity to control their child’s behaviour is restricted when children are being bombarded with messages promoting unhealthy habits. Children are more likely to be influenced by an advertisement showing fast paced, action heroes eating chocolate bars and flying to the moon than by a nagging mother forcing a child to eat vegetables. It’s unfair to expect parents to compete with appealing television commercials. What are the practical constraints upon the possible courses of action? 1. Ban all junk food advertisements on television and 2. Ban junk food advertising on television during children’s television slots: The major practical constraint on both these alternatives is economic. Junk food producers create large profit margins boosting the economy, and their advertisements help keep free television on air. It was determined that 25% of television commercials on free television are for junk food. Without it, television networks may not be able to fund programming and keep free television available to the public. In terms of banning from children’s television slots only, the practical constraint on this is that there is limited alternative advertising that could be shown during children’s slots. The second biggest suppliers of advertisements are insurance and banking companies (Chapman et. al 2003) which does not appeal to children. Without junk food advertising there is a risk that children television programs may not be funded. 3. Make the rules (such as Children’s Television Standards) stricter and enforce them better: There is already a set of standards in place, and the ACMA claims to be properly monitoring and enforcing these rules. However, the CFAC recommends in their Submission to the Australian Communication and Media Authority on the Review of Children’s Television Standards that there be stricter and less ambiguous rules, and an external Watchdog overseeing the implementation of these actions. This would involve some economic outlay, however it may be a cheaper alternative to banning junk food advertising entirely. Examples of stricter rules would include the banning of popular cartoon characters and heroes to advertise products, the banning of free toys and competitions by purchasing and eating the products (especially ones that further reward the more you eat i.e. collecting coupons) and making it essential that proper warning are given as to the negative health risks. The standards should also ensure that there is a proper balance between healthy and non-healthy products being advertised, and that there are enough advertisements promoting healthy lifestyle choices. The practical constraint on such a system however is the subjective nature of such rules and the difficulty in developing a clear cut, unambiguous set of rules. Food marketers will also be unwilling to produce advertisements which lessen the chances of children desiring their product and wanting to eat. A set of constraints aimed at lessening the likelihood of children wanting the product will defeat the purpose of advertising. 4. Leave the level and content of junk food advertising in place and place sole responsibility of a child’s eating habits with the parents: It is not practical for children to be monitored by their parents 24 hours a day. Although parents can limit the amount of junk food purchased for the household, and ban the consumption of junk food at home, if children are still being exposed to television advertisements increasing a child’s desire to consume the food, then when given the chance at the school canteen or the shops at the bus stop children will ultimately have the choice of what food to purchase and consume. It is impossible for parents to completely monitor what their child is eating, therefore there is a need to educate children and influence their personal choice of diet. What actions ought to be undertaken, all things considered? There is undoubtedly a need to for action to be taken to reduce obesity in Australia’s youth, and there is much academic evidence proving the link between junk food advertising on television and children’s poor choice of diet (Hastings et. al, 2006; Livingstone, 2006; Institute of Medicine, 2005). To combat the problem will take combined effort on many organisations and individuals behalf such as educations programs in schools promoting healthy lifestyles, local councils developing active programs for local kids, Government initiatives airing messages on television, school canteens serving healthy good, nutritional information being provided to parents, among many other initiatives that together could help combat the issue. One of the major contributors to child obesity is junk food advertising, and therefore the ACMA, food marketers and television networks have an ethical responsibility to assist in the combined effort to tackle the problem. Some alternatives have been presented and critically analysed for their ethical and practical constraints. The banning of junk food advertisements on televisions solves the majority of ethical dilemmas without creating too many other ethical dilemmas. The main problem with the banning of junk food advertisements is the economic repercussions with decreased revenue for the television networks and junk food producers. However, the CFACs Submission to the Australian Communication and Media Authority on the Review of Children’s Television Standards compares the issue with that of alcohol banning on television and notes that the banning of alcohol advertising before 9pm didn’t have strong economical drawbacks, and predicts that banning or severely monitoring junk food advertising during children’s programming will not have severe economic drawbacks. However because children are, unlike alcohol, a major consumer of junk food, this paper recommends that junk food advertising is not completely banned during children’s programming, but is significantly reduced so children are not bombarded with unhealthy messages; is severely monitored by an external agency and the CTS are strictly adhered to and enforced; and that initiatives are put in place to counter the junk food advertisements with messages of healthy eating habits and lifestyles such as the McDonald’s ‘Get Active’ program promoting children get outside and be active.