Fat Free TV takes a healthy step to tackle obesity

| February 1, 2012

There is growing evidence that banning ads promoting junk food to children is likely to cut down their consumption. But Kathy Chapman, from Cancer Council NSW, says that in the abscence of regulations parental control is an essential part of the solution.

The growing influence of junk food advertising upon childhood obesity is a topic often debated in the media. Some call for banning junk food advertising when children watch TV and some contest whether ad bans will work, decrying a ‘nanny state’.

One cannot deny, however, the complexity surrounding childhood obesity and the need to act. One in four Australian children is considered overweight, and unfortunately a high proportion of these overweight children will become overweight adults, increasing their chance of chronic disease like cancer, heart disease and diabetes along the way.

Obesity is also costing us more than $58 billion a year. That’s four times more than what the NSW Department of Education and Training spends on funding our children’s education and training services.

So it’s essential to put aside the rhetoric, assess evidence and consider a multifaceted approach.

Tackling junk food advertising is part of the bigger picture. It’s all about setting healthy habits for life early on as prevention is better than a cure.

Admittedly junk food advertising to children is a bugbear of mine and it’s an issue I feel strongly about. Children are like sponges, noticing everything. So when it comes to advertising, they remember the jingles, the tempting toy offers, and the ‘coolness factor’.

Children remember the ads and more often than not they want what they see. Of course, this is exactly what junk food advertisers want, as young children successfully targeted now will have a brand allegiance for life. In fact, the Australian food industry spent more than $400 million on marketing in 2010. They spend big bucks because it makes them big bucks.

How does this translate to the shopping trolley? Research shows on average, children pester their parents 15 times in every trip to the supermarket and are successful in half of these attempts. 

The main question we need to ask ourselves in light of Australia’s current levels of obesity is do we really want to surround children with so many enticing junk food ads? Evidence suggests that the more junk food advertising children see, the more likely they are to prefer high fat, salt or sugar foods.

And so it becomes an uphill battle for parents to get their kids to eat healthily.

But like David against Goliath, it is possible for parents to have a say and thwart the junk food onslaught. 

Helping parents understand how junk food ads can influence their kids is one such strategy. By having information at their fingertips parents can then make choices on what their kids are exposed to.

This week Cancer Council NSW launched Fat Free TV Guide, an interactive website which allows parents to search over 100 popular TV shows, rating and ranking the best and worst, based on how much junk food is advertised to children.

For example, you may be surprised to learn that the Saturday AFL, Saturday night family movies and X-Factor have topped the list, with children exposed to 26 junk food ads for things like chocolate, high sugar and caffeine energy drinks, and fast food chains over a six hour viewing period. So with this knowledge parents may choose to turn the TV off, record these shows (to skip the ads) or mute the ads.

Like it or not, we live in a brand driven society and big businesses aren’t going to stop junk food ads without a fight.

In the absence of regulations, the Fat Free TV Guide gives parents a little knowledge to help them even up the playing field. But let’s be clear, this is only one part of a wider solution in our approach to junk food advertising and reducing childhood obesity.

As Health Strategies Director for Cancer Council NSW, Kathy Chapman is responsible for leading cancer prevention work, focusing on encouraging healthy living. She is passionate about making healthy choices the easy choice for Australians, young and old and she is one of the leading Australian researchers on junk food marketing and pester power. As a qualified nutritionist, she is also a foodie who enjoys cooking for family and friends.





  1. foggy


    February 3, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    Keep TV ads slim!

    Generally speaking preschool children are directly influenced by TV ‘ads’ at home. Whereas older group children are influenced by peer pressure of their classmates. Children love to act out the "jingles" which comes so easily to them, and is a source of enjoyment, not only that, but also gives sense of a group identity when purchasing and sharing stuff which has branded their group, commercially."Child is the father of man", and it is easy to see how that little "father makes his parents exert their purchasing power to appease him, with just that package which the former no matter how young his "tyrant" age is, uncannily recognises. No substitute would do.

    Thus parents should be more discreet about letting children see programs which are sprinkled a good bit with junk food ads.

    Obesity is linked with cancer and it is also thought, because of lack of anti oxidants in our usual diet, fast food mode of cooking with edible oils, favours accumulation of harmful carcinogenic substances in body tissues; dangerous even for non obese consumers.
    So parents must form a front against this dangerous lack of awareness, and TV ads should exert more quality control on such material and remove tempting jingles and pictures of children exaggeratedly enjoying food at the expense of their "flourishing" health.