Junk food ads ban – polemic alert

January 2, 2008 at 10:35 pm Leave a comment

I was very excited when I first heard this.

It is a good thing.

But it is also a small thing.

When I was young (by which I mean under five, as that is the age when most children can’t tell the difference between adverts and programmes, although they don’t really understand the persuasive intent of marketing until around eight) there was very little television aimed at children. If you were up early, you could watch an hour or so in the morning, and another hour or so in the afternoon. That was about it. Added to the fact that my parents are terrible intellectual snobs and I barely watched anything on ITV, I don’t think I was exposed to that much junk food advertising when I was little.

I remember once seeing an advert for something called a ‘Push Pop’ – basically a boiled sweet, but in some funky plastic contraption a bit like a lipstick tube, so as you ate a bit of it, you pushed more out – which my brother and I thought looked like the most amazing things in the world ever. So we nagged and nagged my mum to buy us some, and (in a move which was totally out of character) she gave in. They were kept on the top shelf of the cupboard and we were allowed them for a few minutes a day. They lasted for about a week.

Even now, I can still remember the advert clearly and how much it made me yearn for this sticky, sugary, garish, overpackaged product.

Do not underestimate the power of advertising to children, and now with several 24-hour channels aimed solely at children, they must be seeing much more adverts than I ever did. The children I au paired (aged three and five) for used to get up, put the telly on first thing, watch telly till I could drag them away from it to go and play outside for a couple of hours, come back inside, put the telly on again over lunch, have a nap, then watch it again all evening. I expended obscene amounts of energy trying to persuade them to do other things with their time – read, draw, play with toys, anything, but they used to sit there watching inane cartoons (by the end of my stint I was pleased if they were just watching the better quality channel) for hours on end, unless forced to do otherwise.

Their parents despaired. ‘All you ever do is watch telly,’ they said. ‘Go and do something else, and let us watch telly for a bit.’ They never saw their parents engage in any leisure activity other than watch telly either. Never saw them read a book, write a letter, garden, play an instrument… These were bright, educated people, with lovely, intelligent children.

It made me terribly sad. Now, I don’t have children myself, but I have spent two horrible months as an au pair, and I know how terribly draining children are – how much more peaceful it is to let them watch telly rather than actively encourage them to do other things, how they can wear you down, how much easier it is to give into them. I’ve always thought, though, that being a parent is not so much about doing the easiest thing, but about doing what you believe is the right thing, even when it is not the easiest thing to do.

So that means limiting telly, even if your children despise you for it. Cooking them a proper meal, even if it’s easier to throw a packet in the microwave. Telling them that junk food is bad for them and vegetables are good for them and encouraging them, even if it nearly sends you loopy, to eat more vegetables and less junk food. In short, children may be young and impressionable enough to be swayed by these adverts, and, yes, they do see too many of them, but their parents should know better. Children are not the ones who go round the supermarket, fill up the trolley and pay for stuff.

Sadly, many adults are also worshippers of the giant god of consumerism, and are unable to teach their kids any differently. Banning junk food ads is just the tip of the iceberg. If your parents don’t know how to cook and you eat nothing but fast food or ready meals at home, and you don’t learn to cook from your parents or at school, however few junk food adverts you see, you are not going to grow up to have a healthy outlook on food or to eat a healthy diet.

I don’t want to go all Daily Mail and say that it’s all down to personal responsibility – large corporations and agribusiness control what we eat to a frightening degree, corporate responsibility is very important, and if they will insist on selling crap to kids, then the government should damn well step in and stop them, because, frankly, it is wrong and children should not be eating this stuff as much as they are. (Personally, I think all adverts should come with the disclaimer, ‘This person is paid to lie to you.’) The education system has failed them and, I fear, the current generation of parents, by not teaching cooking and by ripping out school kitchens and feeding kids more processed, industrialised rubbish.

But unless children see grown-ups, celebrities and superheroes chopping onions, peeling carrots (and composting the peelings), marinating chicken and milking cows, the ban will have a very limited effect. They need to be exposed to real food, good food, nutritious food, and they need to be taught by the adults responsible for them that meals should be cooked from scratch from decent ingredients the overwhelming majority of the time.

I am glad my mum bought me a Push Pop. It made me really happy. I am glad she took us to MuckDonald’s every once in a while as a treat. I enjoyed it at the time. I am glad I used to eat take-aways with my parents as a teenager.

I was an extremely fussy eater as a child, and god knows it must have destroyed my mother’s soul to have to cook the same handful of meals over and over again for me and my brothers for what must now amount to about two decades. But I am so, so grateful to her for not giving into what must have felt like the easiest thing to do and give us chips every time we moaned at eating the skin on new potatoes, or chicken nuggets every time we complained about the bones in meat.

I’m also glad my dad spent every free moment in the garden and that I saw first-hand where strawberries and peas come from. I’m glad I grew up in the country around sheep and cows and fields of corn (and oil seed rape).

I have grown up into an adult with an almost unhealthily healthy approach to food, and this is not because I never saw a junk food ad on the telly, but because my parents made sure I didn’t watch too much telly and because they taught me that it was just that, junk, and there was nothing wrong with eating it once in a while, but that a healthy diet should not contain too much of it.

I went on the Newsround website to see what ‘da kidz’ were saying about it. These comments were rather old, but here is a selection of my favourites:

“No, it definitely won’t stop kids eating junk food. They need to make junk food look ugly and like it doesn’t taste nice because that’s what healthy food looks like!”

This child clearly understands how marketing works!!

“They should ban junk food altogether, but don’t ban it on Fridays.”

All things in moderation.

This, from a 13-year old girl, is more worrying. She reckons junk food advertising should be banned as it is:

“really hard to stay thin in the modern world”

Along similar lines,

“Ohmigod! What r u going to say next that all kids r restricted to eat Brussels sprouts from now on!? why can’t u ppl stop being so over protective let us enjoy our lives – Soon we’re going to be adults and will be going on diets and stuff this is going way over the top chill out.”

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Entry filed under: consumerism, junk food, ramble.

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