Why Advertising Works Even if You Don't Buy It

This week's column didn't end up online over at The Western Star so I'm posting it here for all my scads of readers :-)
Will post a follow-up commentary tommorrow, but feel free to tell me what you think of my ideas in this peice.
I had a hard time settling down on one topic this past week and wrote this sort of last-minute. It was inspired by the recent report released in Pediatrics that girls are entering puberty earlier and one major cause is obesity.

So this is it:
Why Are Our Kids So Fat?

Yet another study has been released linking childhood obesity to major health problems. This time, it’s early puberty in girls. It’s also been linked to Type 2 Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, liver disease, asthma, sleep problems and any number of psychological and emotional disorders.

Even though obesity in children is growing at an alarming rate, these kids are still singled out by their peers and even their own family as the victims of relentless bullying. Poor self-esteem and depression are common among overweight kids which leads into vicious cycles of emotional eating.

What can be done? We all know that weight is a result of lifestyle and diet. But it’s also influenced by genetics. I thank my lucky stars every day that my children seem to have inherited my husband’s metabolism instead of my own.

I was an overweight, perhaps even obese, child myself. And I’m still overweight to this day. Once I hit puberty the pounds packed on at what seemed to be exponential rates.

I don’t think my parents did anything wrong. Yes, we had a certain amount of unhealthy food but we weren’t inundated with junk food the way children today seem to be. I was always active and played outside every day. Dance, soccer, basketball, rugby, plus hiking, canoeing and general messing about in the woods kept me busy and active.

This was before the advent of internet, gaming, and social media so we can’t blame screen time.

I was definitely an emotional eater, though. After a bad day of teasing at school I would console myself with an after-school snack made from peanut butter, chocolate chips, honey and oats. Or a milkshake. Or a microwave pizza.

My parents didn’t keep a lot of junk food in the house, but I knew how to make comfort foods from everyday ingredients.

Which is why I sometimes cringe when I hear people respond to advertising aimed at children by saying “well, parents decide what to buy, not children.”
That’s certainly true. And as a parent myself, whose children have hardly been exposed to any advertising, I know how much they can demand what they want. I also know how hard it is to decide what is best.

Just last week I spent ten minutes in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. I was trying to find the best healthy value for my money. I know how to read a nutritional label; I know how much sugar and sodium are acceptable and how much protein and fiber are desirable. I’m the woman that reads the labels on everything before it goes in the cart.

Yet, even I was confused by the differing labels. I finally found a cereal that we could afford that the children would like and was still under 8 grams of sugar per serving. Then I realized that their “serving” was a half cup. Meanwhile I had just rejected a cereal with 9 grams of sugar per serving, but upon further inspection, the serving size was one full cup.

Food labeling can be incredibly tricky and confusing - even when you come to it with an understanding of nutrition and with high literacy skills. But many parents don’t have that. They read “made with whole grains” and “a source of seven essential nutrients” and feel that they are making a good choice. Advertisers never write “more than 50% of your RDI of sodium” or “enough sugar to help your children climb the walls” on the outside of their boxes.

Advertising is deceptive and even parents can fall for murky claims. Even well educated, knowledgeable, health conscious parents can buy a box of multigrain cheerios thinking they’re a good choice.

But advertising isn’t just deceptive in the way it words things. It’s deceptive in the ideas it relates.

Advertising aimed at children does more than attempt to sell them a product. Advertisers and manufacturers know that childhood is the prime time to create loyal consumers.

Ads aimed at children are especially notorious for being too fanciful. Young children, especially preschoolers who are still struggling with representations of reality, will believe that the plastic toy horse with wings can really fly if you show it flying.
They will also believe that pizza can make them happy if you show a lot of happy children eating it.

Advertisers want to create brand loyalty in children, which they do through the use of characters such as Dora, Iron Man, and the Disney Princesses. They want to enmesh children in their commercial culture which they do through sponsoring children’s events and even schools and through relentless advertising.

But they also want to sell ideas: more is good, buying is best, keep up with the latest, and this can make you happy.

Which brings us back to the 12 year old me. No access to junk food in the house, but I’ve already been sold the idea that food, and especially sugary, fatty food can make me happy. So I make my own.

Even when parents make the decision not to buy what their children have asked for, the children have already been sold the idea that happiness comes in bottles and purchasing power.

So, the next time someone calls for advertising reform, instead of jumping to the conclusion that advertising is about a single product and a parent’s choices, think about what the advertisers are really trying to sell.

In my opinion, advertising to children at all should be illegal. I think everyone needs to admit that it at least needs to be regulated more.


  1. Very interesting, as always. I'm not really sure about my views on this issue to be honest, I'd certainly never looked at it from that angle.

    When it comes to advertising on the packet and nutritional labelling I get pretty annoyed by people moaning about it. I take your point that not everyone has a high level of literacy or nutritional knowledge but to me it's just common sense. I don't believe anything I read on the packets, I accept anything pre-packed is bad for me and buy fresh meat and veg.

    I don't think that advertising to children would ever get banned, I'm not sure why, I just don't see it happening. It would be fabulous if it was, children should be allowed to develop at their own pace, learn their own mind and be children.

    I'm not sure I really have a point, I'm just thinking out loud...

  2. I've never thought about it like this before Dara but now that i have it does make sense. We may not buy the thing or have it bought for us but we are left in no doubt when we are children, and often as adults too, that if we did have it, our lives would be happier. Consumer culture is taught to us at a very young age. Buy things, they make you happy. If you can't buy them your life is somehow lacking.

  3. Hi Dara,

    Great post. The province of Quebec actually banned advertising to children under 13 in the mid-70's--my partner, a Franco-Ontarian who watched Quebec television as a child, has pretty much no memory of being advertised at.

    The provisions of the Quebec Consumer Protection Act were later upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada as not violating freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (For fellow law geeks, see Irwin Toy Ltd. v. Quebec (Attorney General), [1989] 1 S.C.R. 927.)

    Write to your M.H.A. Here are the provisions in question:

    Advertising for persons under 13.

    248. Subject to what is provided in the regulations, no person may make use of commercial advertising directed at persons under thirteen years of age.

    1978, c. 9, s. 248.

    Criteria of intent.

    249. To determine whether or not an advertisement is directed at persons under thirteen years of age, account must be taken of the context of its presentation, and in particular of

    (a) the nature and intended purpose of the goods advertised;
    (b) the manner of presenting such advertisement;
    (c) the time and place it is shown.


    The fact that such advertisement may be contained in printed matter intended for persons thirteen years of age and over or intended both for persons under thirteen years of age and for persons thirteen years of age and over, or that it may be broadcast during air time intended for persons thirteen years of age and over or intended both for persons under thirteen years of age and for persons thirteen years of age and over does not create a presumption that it is not directed at persons under thirteen years of age.

    1978, c. 9, s. 249.

  4. Interesting post Dara. I struggle with this issue a little in our house as my ex is morbidly obese and diabetic and my oldest daughter appears to have received his genetic predisposition to being overweight and craving food. Trying to get the balance right between encouraging her to eat properly and not harrassing her (by default) is really tricky. I try to provide a role model by exercising even though I am also overweight. There was a TV programme over here that talked about a child who used to eat Ketchup every day by the bottle full and the parent sat by and said 'I don't know how they became so fat!'. Information for both kids and parents is vital I think.


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