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To help prevent childhood obesity we need action on TV junk food advertising

by Lindsay Allan | Analysis

5 July 2016

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Mummy can I please buy this? Can I please buy this? Can I please buy this?”

Sound familiar?

As a child you probably tried this tactic, while if you’re a parent, you’ve probably been subjected to this exasperating form of pleading – often referred to as ‘pester power’.

And one of the biggest culprits for encouraging pester power is junk food advertising.

It’s already been shown that junk food ads affect how children ask their parents for food, with around three-quarters of parents saying that their children have pestered them to buy junk food.

This can lead to parents buying unhealthy foods that are associated with obesity, and makes it more difficult for them to feed their children a healthy diet.

This is particularly worrying at a time when 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese, many of whom will go on to become obese adults. And obesity in adults is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking, being linked to 10 different cancer types.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulatory body, has previously acknowledged the harm that these ads cause to children and introduced a ban on ads promoting junk food during children’s programming. But it isn’t enough.

That’s the conclusion of new report published today by Cancer Research UK’s Policy Research Centre for Cancer Prevention and NatCen, Britain’s leading independent social research institute. The report confirms what we’ve long suspected – these regulations don’t work.

“[The ads are] mostly on adults’ channels. Mostly at night ’coz adults are watching. ”
– Girl, Year 6

Our study explored children’s perceptions of junk food advertising, and involved more than 100 nine to 12 year olds from primary schools across England and Scotland.

The children were shown various popular adverts for junk foods, and asked questions such as when they typically saw these adverts, how the ads made them feel, and whether they made them buy or ask for certain foods.

We found that children are mostly exposed to junk food advertising in the evenings and weekends after 4:30pm, during family programmes.

So despite the rules to protect children from junk food marketing, children are still far too easily exposed to these ads on TV.

We also found that children recall, enjoy and engage with junk food adverts.

In the discussions, food adverts were among children’s favourite type of ad. Many used the ads when socialising with friends – especially those that were funny or entertaining.

“We try and make the funny voices and do the advert,” said one boy in year four.

So while these ads are ever-present in children’s lives, they also have an impact on their behaviour and consequently their health.                  


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“I’ve watched some people on TV that ate too much junk food and then it’s really bad for them.”
– Boy, Year 6

In the short-term the adverts made some children hungry and want to eat junk food – as a student put it: “You might be eating a piece of fruit, you might see the advert and you might just throw it in the bin and ask your mum for money and leg it to the shop.”

In the longer-term, junk food adverts can encourage children to ask their parents to buy certain food either immediately after viewing the advert or when they’re out shopping and see the food in the store.

For example a girl in year six told the researchers: “Me and my family always go out shopping on Saturday so usually if I see them [sweets] I remember that advert and I buy them.”

And this impact on behaviour is the start of a slippery slope into health problems according to Chit Selvarajah, Cancer Research UK’s prevention policy manager.

“We can’t ignore the role of junk food advertising in childhood obesity,” he says.

“Kids exposed to junk food ads are more likely to eat junk food. They not only pester their parents to buy unhealthy snacks but use their own pocket money to buy junk food they’ve seen advertised.”

There are alarmingly high levels of childhood obesity, and children are being influenced to buy junk food, often without realising it. And this problem is too important toignore.

“If you don’t eat healthy stuff then you get fat, all you’ll want to do is sit on the couch and do nothing.”
– Boy, Year 4

This summer the Government will be releasing a strategy to tackle children’s obesity and as part of the strategy, we want to see them bring in restrictions to remove TV junk food marketing before the 9pm watershed.

And we’re not alone – three quarters of the public agree with us.

“The Government must be bold and remove junk food ads from TV before the 9pm watershed if they want to reduce childhood obesity,” says Selvarajah.


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Today, our Cancer Campaigns Ambassadors are meeting their MPs, as part of a day of action in Parliament, to help make sure our voice is heard. They’ll be telling MPs about the link between obesity and cancer and how they can protect children from exposure to junk food ads.

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But TV isn’t the only media where junk food is advertised.

TV viewing habits are shifting towards online, and the lack of advertising regulations online mean that children are being exposed to junk food adverts there too.

As one girl in year six pointed out: “I’m mainly on my iPad. And when I’m watching a YouTube video it comes up with adverts before [the video].”

So we’ll be looking how new proposals could help reduce children’s exposure online.

But right now making TV a junk free zone will be a welcome step towards a happy and healthier future generation.

Lindsay Allan is a graduate trainee in Cancer Research UK’s policy department

If you want to get involved ask your MP to write to the Public Health Minister in support of including pre-watershed junk food marketing restrictions in the childhood obesity strategy. Also tweet about our campaign using #JunkFreeTV.