This is the second of a two part series published in Arena magazine. Part 1 is Junk Food: a hands-off approach to regulation means more child obesity

As the Abbott government acts to close down the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, a statutory body with responsibility to develop policies to address childhood obesity, consumer psychology is providing new insights into how advertising gets kids to
eat. This new research is nowhere to be found in the deliberations of Australian policy makers, neither the politicians committed to small government and ‘selfregulation’,
nor even those more sympathetic to regulation. Policy making remains weighed down by an antiquated view of how marketing persuades.

In a 2008 op-ed in The Age, the Institute of Public Affairs’ Chris Berg painted the standard picture of what an advertisement does: “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 Australian Food and Grocery Council, which coordinates advertising self-regulation, is sympathetic to this view. In 2012 its Chief Executive, Gary Dawson, told Lateline that ‘The irony … is we’ve never had more information available about good nutrition and about healthy lifestyles … But the common sense rule stays the same: eat things in moderation, get exercise’.

Berg’s position is to be expected from an avowed libertarian and free marketeer whose employer has deep conservative ties. But he is partly right. Ads sell products by creating awareness. And people with the requisite critical skills can make up their own minds about advertising claims. But advocacy groups point out that kids under seven don’t even understand that ads have commercial or persuasive intent. And the ‘requisite critical skills’ to dismember the puffery don’t emerge until age eleven. In its Senate submission the Obesity Policy Coalition said children were vulnerable because
they ‘lack the mature cognitive ability necessary to comprehend advertising messages and assess them critically’.

And this is precisely how food manufacturers want the conversation to run. If the public believes ads persuade with claims their children are too young to critique, industry has a tailor made retort: ‘We’ll work really hard to make all our claims defensible’. This version is convenient for Big Food because it distracts attention from how advertising actually persuades.

Read the full article from Arena magazine as a pdf here