Nanny State Ad Bans Won’t Stop Kids Liking Junk Food

It used to be that if the government didn’t like something, it would ban it. Now, if the government disapproves of a product, it just bans it from being advertised.

A Senate committee is currently examining the feasibility of restricting advertisements for alcohol, and Kevin Rudd has expressed interest in making such a measure part of his binge drinking campaign.

Similarly, the Australian Medical Association wants to ban junk food advertising during children’s TV shows. Advertising restrictions are the new coolest thing for paternalistic policy-makers and their nanny state.

But are we that easily manipulated by brand managers and advertising firms? Does the Government have to step in to protect us, and our children, from harmful ads? Advertising is, at its core, just the simple delivery of information. Those who oppose it are essentially arguing that this information is too challenging for individuals to process safely; that, if told the wrong thing, they will be unable to resist self-harm.

The anti-capitalist Naomi Klein famously took this argument one step further when she decried the psychological power of corporate brands – we are all, apparently, oppressed by tyrannical graphic designers. Mining would be finally recognised as the environmental catastrophe it is if only everybody wasn’t so disorientated by BHP’s trendy looking bubble logo.

This view does not just reduce us to the level of dumb automatons, passively waiting for advertising executives to beam their instructions directly into our brains, it also creates a profound dilemma for democratic politics. If we don’t have free will in the shopping centre, we certainly don’t have free will in the voting booth. And figuring out which political party would be better for interest rates is far more complex than figuring out which brand of shampoo to buy.

Nevertheless, most people acknowledge that adults are sensibly sceptical about marketing claims.What is surprising is just how advertising savvy children are.

Minors are depicted by policy-makers as unable to defend themselves against a well-planned onslaught of marketing. However, as the new book Prohibitions published by Britain’s Institute of Economic Affairs shows, children as young as five form preferences about their favourite TV programs. And by the age of 11, children demonstrate a pronounced scepticism about claims made in ads.

During the federal election campaign, anti-advertising rhetoric took a decidedly surreal turn. In response to the Labor Party’s dislike of Shrek-themed merchandising, the Howard government promised to fund a new ABC channel for children completely free of junk food ads. It was a bizarre train of thought that led Liberal policy-makers to think that the best way to combat childhood obesity was to make sitting on the couch and watching TV more appealing.

The belief that an individual’s free will is crushed under the jackboot of catchy advertising jingles is, of course, nonsense. We have just as much autonomy over our personal decisions as we did before an ad break.

So what, then, is advertising for? It informs us that new products are available in the marketplace. We may, after having watched an ad, have a different idea of what our next purchase may be. But that isn’t because we have been manipulated by a ruthless marketing department.

An ad that informs us that McDonald’s now sells salad only interests those people who would probably like to buy a salad from McDonald’s. If the preference for salad doesn’t already exist, then no ad, no matter how brilliant, is going to be effective.

This logic is fairly obvious. What child is going to abandon chocolates and lollies when their ads disappear off television? Kids will always like junk food. Any parents who think that a government ban will make walking up the chocolate aisle less stressful are deceiving themselves. And anybody who thinks that teenagers will refuse the next “alcopop” just because they are no longer being specifically marketed to under-25s has forgotten a lot about their youth.

Politicians and activists are attracted to the theory that advertising manipulates consumers. It gives them yet another reason to regulate the media, and a way to appear to be doing something about the latest health scare. But they won’t change our behaviour. Instead, politicians should face the hideous truth – people are smarter than advertisements.