Fighting Childhood Obesity in a World of Big Bucks Fast Food Advertising

According to a recent study published in the New York Times, and cited in CBS Sunday Morning, we are exposed to nearly 5,000 advertisements per day. By comparison, this number was only 500 ads per day in 1970. These ads are everywhere, filing every potential blank space in our lives with a message to buy something.

Twelve minutes of every television viewing hour is taken up by 12 minutes of commercials. That is only one source. Consider all of the other places where advertising appears. We get ads on the radio, on video games, with every movie we watch, on park benches, buses, subway terminals, print media and too many to count along the sidebar of every web page. Unfortunately, for our kids, the number of advertising campaigns teaching them to make healthy choices is outnumbered by those that prompt them to engage in unhealthy practices, particularly when it comes to food advertising.

First, let’s call it what it is. This is a battle between you and multi-million dollar advertising. It is your child’s health that is at stake. You strive to continually provide your child with healthy food and teach them to make healthy choice when you are not around. Your enemy is the advertiser who is out to capture your child’s dollar, regardless of the cost to their health.

Any good warrior knows that the first rule is to know thine enemy. Advertisers have years of marketing study, scientific studies, and knowledge on how to motivate people to make the decision that they want them to make. They know how to evoke emotions to make them go against their most basic instincts. Adverting is about creating a belief and then designing an action around that belief, such as purchasing a hamburger, milkshake, and large order of fries instead of a healthy salad.

Now, let’s get scientific too. We have a basic need to make our actions match our thoughts and beliefs. When they do not, we become irritated, angry, guilty, or have any number of reactions. This need is based on neurology and the biochemistry of the brain. When our thoughts and actions are not in sync, we must either change our beliefs or change our actions. Ok, so this is nice, but how can it be used to overcome unhealthy advertising messages and convince your child that what they really want is an apple?

It’s easy; advertisers typically do not make claims that their food is healthy. They will say that it tastes good, or that it is the hip thing to do. Seldom do they tell you that it is healthy, because that tends to open them up to loads of public criticism and legal issues. They just gloss over the health issue or ignore it completely in advertising. This is your best weapon in the battle.

Talking to your kids about healthy food is one thing, as long as it does no sound like nagging. We know they tune out nagging, but implanting little factoids about health and nutrition will go a long way. A well-placed question might do the trick too. This is a technique that psychologists use in therapy to help resolve issues of conflict. For instance, if they come home and tell you that they went to a big well-known fast food establishment for lunch, you might interject something like, “I thought you were want to eat healthier food.” They may grumble at first, but they will have to think about it. These little things will help you to beat the tons of advertising that bombards them every day.

The most important thing that you can do is to set the example. If you talk about eating healthy foods and take great time to prepare healthy meals at home, and then slip through a drive through when you are in a hurry, you might want to think about the message that you are sending. Your kids pick up on that message. Practicing what you preach is the best way to beat the advertisers. The advertisers are limited in their tools to influence your child. They only have a few seconds and can only depend on sight and sound. You have a 24 X 7 multimedia surround sound experience at your disposal. The bid advertisers may seem like a Goliath that is too big to battle, but you are parents and you have the greatest influence on your child’s world, period. Monitoring what you say and do every day is the best defense against the messages of food advertising agencies.

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