Cheesed off: Are TV ads helping to make your kids obese?
Broadcasting bosses are concerned at the rise of 'pester power', says Suzanne Campbell
Modern day Don Drapers have come under fire this week for targeting kids in ther slick TV ad campaigns. Research just out in the US has found that children who can identify ads on television that relate to fast food are more likely to be obese. Previously, the link between television and behaviour in regard to food was unclear, but a new study in the US of 3,342 kids completed by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical centre in New Hampshire is one of the first to identify fast-food ads on television with overweight kids. They've also found that children as young as two years old can recognise food brands and packaging, leading to an increase in "pester power". This comes hot on the heels of proposals by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) to ban adverts for Irish foods such as cheese, burgers and sausages during programmes aimed at children.
Cheese in particular is seen by Irish consumers as a "healthy" food. So why ban it alongside crisps, biscuits and junk food?
With one-in-four Irish children classed as obese, and the number increasing by 10pc every year, our younger population is rapidly gaining weight. Television advertising plays a huge role in what children want to eat. "Pester power" is used by marketers to target children who then pressure their parents to buy groceries high in fat and sugar. It's these HFSS foods (high in fat, sugar and salt) which the BAI wants to ban during children's TV programmes.
Alongside cheese, we may also see ads for burgers, pizzas, biscuits, carbonated drinks and many breakfast cereals falling foul of the new proposals. The BAI also wants to reduce the number of ads for these foods to no more than 25pc of total advertising in Irish TV schedules.
Because of Ireland's success at making dairy products, it's the ban on cheese that has drawn most attention to the new advertising proposals, particularly from food producers and farming groups such as the Irish Farmers' Association.
Under the new 'nutrient profiling model' used by the BAI to calculate healthy and unhealthy foods, cheese falls into the unhealthy group because of its levels of saturated fat.
But the model has drawn criticism as it puts domestic food products into the same class as junk food. "It's wrongheaded" says Kevin Kiersey of the Irish Farmers Association. "Cheese provides a concentrated source of calcium -- an element lacking in many children's diets."
But to some observers, the cheese row is a red herring; the real story lies in the huge amount of advertising by large food brands aimed at children throughout Irish TV schedules. The BAI's research into viewing habits shows that Irish children aged between four and 17 watch on average two hours and 14 minutes of television per day.
And most of this television is watched between 6 and 9pm -- prime family viewing time with hit programmes such as The Simpsons, Coronation Street and The Voice drawing in large audiences. Even if the BAI bans certain foods in the daytime schedule, they will still be seen during prime-time family viewing hours in the early evening.
If the proposals do come into force in Ireland, it's likely we will see a juggling about of sponsorship by food brands on to different programmes to stay clear of the new daytime regulations. In the UK, Domino's pizzas dropped their sponsorship of The Simpsons after Ofcom ruled they had broken their food advertising code. But whatever happens, the lucrative ads for foods high in salt, sugar and fat aren't going to go away.
Advertising for food dominates our television viewing and has the largest percentage of the Irish TV audience. Between 2008 and 2010, advertising for food products were the ones most viewed by children aged from four to 17 years old.
RTé 2 and TG4 are the only Irish channels which have dedicated programmes for children during the daytime. But if your eight-year-old is watching Jeremy Kyle on ITV or repeats of EastEnders on RTé 1 -- both on in the early afternoon -- they will still see ads for high fat, salt and sugary foods under the new code because those programmes aren't especially made for children.
However, kids programming available from the UK such as Nickelodeon and CITV will have restrictions on the types of food advertised as those channels already fall under the UK's Ofcom code.
If the Irish proposals go ahead there will be a substantial loss of earnings to Irish television channels, with RTé 2 and TG4 facing the biggest hit. The BAI says it doesn't want to overly punish broadcasters, but that it's also time to take strong measures on foods advertised to children.
TV is a powerful tool in influencing children's diets and, if you're concerned about what your children watch, are involved in a food business or want to comment on the new proposals, check out www.bai.ie.
The BAI will accept submissions on the new code until the end of May. Whatever your views, feel free to voice an opinion.