ALMOST everyone agrees that advertising teaches. The quarrel is over what it teaches. In the case of Australia’s food advertising the message is quite clear: ‘children should eat fast and eat sweet’.
The Australian Consumers’ Association recorded all of the TV food advertisements in Sydney for a week. Of the total number of advertisements screened on the three channels, 32 per cent were for food and beverages. And of’ those ‘78 per cent directly contravened the official dietary guidelines. The worst offenders were ads encouraging consumption of fat, sugar, alcohol and salt. And of those, the ads aimed at children were the worst of all,
A staggering 33 per cent of advertisements were for excessively sweet products. In fact, ten per cent of all advertising on Australian television advocated greater consumption of products like sweets, soft drinks, cordials, ice blocks, ice cream and sweet biscuits - all containing a high proportion of refined sugar. Even an advertisement for bananas - a nutritionally impeccable food - suggested that the fruit would be ‘better’ in a sweet chocolate pie. And promotion of healthy sporting activities like cricket often featured background promotion for soft-drinks.
The most heavily advertised product of all was alcohol, Perhaps this is the industry’s way of maintaining Australia’s well-deserved, but unfortunate, reputation for being a nation of boozers. Ifs bad enough promoting alcohol to adults. It’s an entirely different matter to push this unnecessary social drug to children. Consider this recent example: To encourage I l-year-olds to Imagine and describe themselves as a lion, a bird, or something even more inspired, the education department ran a test asking children to complete the following: ‘I feel like a…’ For the vast majority there was only one right answer: ‘A Tooheys’. (‘I feel like a Tooheys’ is the slogan for a series of beer ads run frequently on television).
Whether you laugh or weep, the incident proves -- beyond a doubt that alcohol advertising is reaching children and having a strong impact. Meanwhile there is evidence that alcoholism - a major problem in Australia-- often begins as young as II or 12 years of age. Drug authority surveys in 1980 showed that about ten per cent of 13-year-old boys and a smaller percentage of girls used alcohol at least once a week. By age 16 the percentage of boys and girls rose to 35 per cent and went up steeply after that.
Broadcasters and advertisers claim that an existing ban on alcohol advertising during childrens’ viewing hours and self-regulation by advertisers is control enough. But the ban on alcohol ads only operates between four o’clock in the afternoon and seven-thirty. Ratings have shown that peak viewing time for five to 12-year-olds is from six to nine, even on weekdays with over 50 per cent watching between seven-thirty and eight-thirty. Far fewer watch between four and six, the supposed children’s time slot.
Typical is an advertisement broadcast during the three-to-six afternoon slot. Action shots of surfboat racing are followed by the winning team jubilantly tossing cans of cold beet to each other and then downing them with arms slung around one another’s broad shoulders: all blonde, bronze, handsome, male and young - heroes for any child to identify with. And children are seeing these ads - and believing them too. They simply do not have an adults capacity for critical appraisal.
Back to the week in question: almost half of ads aimed at children glued to the three-to-six o’clock viewing slot were for food, nearly all of it sweets, snacks, ices, fast food and cereals, many of them pre-sweetened.
This post-school viewing period - a time when many working parents are forced to rely on the TV set to babysit - had far more food ads than any other time slot. So it appeared that advertisers are deliberately setting out to teach kids a nutritional lesson. Whether it’s the one you want your children to learn is another matter altogether.
Percentages simply can’t convey the impact of advertising. The child who is called to the dinner table at six o’clock comes, in all probability, after watching three ads for iced treats, two for chocolate or chocolate-coated sweets, five or six for crisp snacks, one for chocolate-flavoured cereal, another for chewing gum and several for fast food chains. Each advertisement has done its best to excite the child about the product, with cartoons or films featuring kids in fun live action, with music and lots of sound effects.
None have attempted to excite the child about fruit, vegetables, cheese, eggs or. indeed, most of the food one hopes they would actually eat. No wonder so many dinner tables are battlefields.
Poor child nutrition in Australia is attributed partly to TV ads. A study of Melbourne children in 13 primary schools at different socio-economic levels found that, over a week, a quarter had eaten no vegetables at all and a third no fruit. Over a third of the children had constipation due to lack of fibre and about a third were overweight. In the US and the UK the story is similar, with 95 per cent of British people suffering some kind of atherosclerosis by the time they’re adult and children as young as eight with diseased arteries from too much fat in their diet. Among US teenagers conscripted for the Vietnam War, 50 per cent had diseased arteries.
One pernicious feature of advertising is the use of jingles. It is worth mentioning that most ads that leave you feeling happy and relaxed feature jingles. Through this medium advertisers are often able to make the most extravagant, hardly believable claims. One milk product jingle, for example. claimed: ‘Milo gives more will to learn’; while another - a beer advertisement - calls on us to ‘go all the way with Tooths LA, you can stay with Tooths LA’. Jingles seem to have an almost sedative effect, putting viewers’ critical faculties to sleep, while leaving them receptive to the actual message.
It’s not just paid advertising which subverts child nutrition. School children and anxious parents have both been the targets of a thoroughly irresponsible ‘public education’ campaign launched by the sugar industry in 1981.
The campaign - based on a glossy booklet and film intended for use in schools - attempted to liken fruit and vegetables, which naturally contained small amounts of sugar, with ice-creams, soft drinks, and processed foods loaded with highly refined sugar. Full page advertisements in the daily newspapers urged an already sugar-saturated nation to ‘stop feeling guilty, uncertain, threatened and suspicious’ about sugar and its effects on health and to post in the coupon for a free booklet containing ‘The Facts’.
Consumer groups were quick to respond with a press release condemning the industry for attempting to boost sales in the guise of responsible, factual information. It was pointed out that excessive sugar intake is widely associated with health problems like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, caries and that these problems are exacerbated by the large amounts of hidden sugar buried in modern processed foods. The release was well received by the media and, in all, some 30 radio, television and newspaper interviews dealing with the issue were conducted. This publicity was backed up by telegrams to all responsible Ministers for health and education throughout Australia, asking them to publicly disassociate themselves from the sugar industry propaganda. Fortunately, the sugar board campaign was dropped. But since then several new ones have started.
The end of this story has yet to be written. Will today’s children end up in tomorrow’s health statistics as victims of a TV commercial lifestyle?
Allan Asher is Public Affairs Manager of the Australian Consumer Association.