Unethical Food Marketing to Children

Dr Gursharan Si... | October 17,2014 03:28 pm IST

Some countries are taking steps towards protecting children from ads. Many European Governments have placed restrictions on television commercials targeting kids.

But in India, we do not seem to understand the problem yet. Unfortunately, the Government of India is using children to get its message through to the people. The Indian Revenue Department has shamelessly used kids in their mass message to parents on tax-evasion. The results have been quite traumatic for some parents and their children because the children wanted to know if the parents paid "Service Tax". Any amount of explanation by the parents on the non-applicability of the tax could not pacify the children because they thought their parents were criminals and likely to be arrested. The children pleaded with their patents to pay up the "Service Tax" and fulfill their duty of being a good citizen. The problem is not just the pervasiveness of marketing campaigns aimed at children, but the skill with which they wield their charms. As advertisers are making their pitches to younger and younger audiences, many of whom are just learning to walk, companies are beckoning to psychologists for assistance.

Examples of unethical market exclusion or selective marketing are past industry attitudes to the gay, ethnic minority and obese markets. Contrary to the popular myth that ethics and profits do not mix, the tapping of these markets has proved highly profitable. Food industry still needs to adopt higher ethical values in its approach to children. It is simply unethical to exploit the vulnerabilities of children by using such kind of marketing on the back of popular children's films and characters. It is perpetuating the commercial exploitation of children. We're not in a vacuum any more. A 100 years ago, there were smaller insular communities where a parent could exercise some control. Now we have billion-dollar marketing organizations that want to over-ride the sensibilities of parents. Sure a parent can get all Luddite and shut off the TV, but then it would make the kid even worse because of resenting the social embarrassment. But parents have to drive kids around and say 'no' to certain food items.

The parents need to take responsibility. The key element in effective marketing communication is persuasion. For a message to be effective, it must be persuasive. It attempts to steer one's thinking in a direction that will likely benefit the communicator and/or the receiver. This model is all about determining whether the message is indeed persuasive. If it is a neutral message, it has failed to be persuasive, and the receiver can take it or leave it for what it is worth (a waste of the receiver's time). Assuming that the message is in some way, at least a little bit persuasive, the receiver becomes involved in the next step. A persuasive message should be considered just an advertisement.

The industry and government should develop responsible self-regulatory practices for marketing to kids while permitting companies to compete vigorously in the growing market for healthier foods. Food companies and the advertising industry should think about their responsibilities to children, not about their 'right' to exploit them. Whether we rely on research or common sense, we know that children are more vulnerable to marketing than adults, and that they should be protected because of their vulnerabilities. Children have the right to grow up in a safe and healthy environment. Parents have the right to raise their children without being undermined by corporate marketers; and the government should restrict commercial access to children. Self-regulation has been a complete failure so far. The current industry efforts are woefully inadequate. The industry should develop tough and effective marketing guidelines, but when private interests work against the public good like this, government is obliged to act.

There is now an urgent need to establish robust international standards to protect children's well-being by curbing commercial practices which exploit children's credulity, contribute to unhealthy consumption patterns, and hinder the efforts of parents, governments and society to improve children's diets. World Health Organization, in conjunction with other UN Agencies and MemberStates - is all set to develop an International Code on the Marketing of Foods and Beverages to children, and is setting out the standards which should govern trans-national as well as national aspects of all promotional activities affecting children, including novel marketing techniques.

Foods, beverages, media, and advertising industries should support a WHO International Code of Marketing as well as government and societal efforts to protect children and re-orient all components of commercial marketing, including products, pricing, place and promotion. All stakeholders need to ensure that school and other child-focused settings are freed from commercial influence, and actively promote healthy nutritional standards supporting the goal of reducing consumption of high fat, sugar and salt products. Civil-society, non-governmental organizations and other agencies, who advocate for the protection of children from the promotion of unhealthy diets, should monitor progress towards this goal independently. Governments must adopt the necessary measures to protect children from commercial communications that encourage unhealthy diets as part of comprehensive efforts to improve children's diets.



Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth started his career as Lecturer at Post Graduate Dept. of Economics, Government College, Gurdaspur, and later at Khalsa College; Amritsar, specializes in Quantitative & Development Economics. Has the distinction of serving Punjab Agricultural Univ, Ludhiana, for more than 2 decades and r...