From ‘Ban on ads that drive kids to unhealthy food’, 28 Oct 2012, article by Salma Khalik, Sunday Times
Advertisements that make unhealthy food and drinks appealing to children will be banned from early next year as part of Singapore’s battle against obesity. Topping the list of ads likely to be affected are those for sweet drinks and fast food high in oil and salt.
Announcing this yesterday, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said the action is not targeted at specific brands, but at unhealthy food. The move is an important initiative, he added, because eating habits are formed at a relatively young age. Singapore is also seeing a steady rise in obesity rates.
…Mr Gan said the restrictions on ads targeting children will start with television programmes and children’s magazines. Asked if ads for unhealthy food at bus stops near schools would also be affected, he said the ban could be expanded to other forms of advertising later.
I think it’s pretty obvious who this ban is directed at, though the criteria of ‘unhealthy food’ here is rather vague. You hardly ever see ads for ‘healthy, fat-free organic’ food, only because it’s the foods that tempt and kill you slowly that companies can afford to advertise on TV. You don’t see Campbell’s selling Cream of Broccoli to children, though some would argue that canned vegetable soup with its high sodium isn’t exactly ‘healthy’ either.
Let’s start with the traditional culprits, and this global conglomerate needs no introduction. They are, after all, the ones who associate kids’ combi meals with ‘happiness’. Many parents would even use them as a ruse to motivate their kids into studying for exams. You don’t see Mummy telling her kid ‘If you finish your homework I’ll make you some delicious wholemeal pasta with peas and carrots!’. Come on, they want their Hot Cakes and they want it now.
The above ad casts fast food as a comforter for disappointment, an emotional crutch, and that alone is a powerful psychological tool. Ads, however, are just one brute way of getting kids to eat Macs. The company also has the power to fulfill our kids’ wildest dreams, like sending them to the Olympic games as ‘Champions of Play’. The Health Ministry has NO IDEA who they’re dealing with. The corporate geniuses at Macs saw ad bans coming miles away, and their quest for kid domination began with a clown with red hair and a purple lump called Grimace.
Like Macs, KFC also espouses ‘family values’ (see below). But maybe it’s not so much the KIDS that fast food giants are targetting. It’s their helpless PARENTS. And grandparents. By the way, KFC porridge has popcorn chicken inside. Old folks with heart problems better watch out.
Ads for soft drinks, however, have recently been focussing on older youth, especially those who skateboard or shuffle on the streets. Presumably this demographic isn’t as susceptible to tooth enamel loss as our soda guzzling toddlers. Sugary carbonated drinks have suffered a bad rep for its visible effect on teeth. Fats, salt and oils however, don’t manifest until years later and are effectively ‘invisible’ threats. Which is why you don’t see many kids in ads loading themselves with Coke and Pepsi, though that’s not stopping them from picking up Kinder Buenos from the supermarket aisles, you know, the ones that come with the FREE TOYS. Oreos, in particular, are notorious for promoting family togetherness, even making a trademark out of the way you lick and dip one, one that can be passed down from father to son like a heirloom.
Sometimes you don’t need specific brands to subliminally encourage kids to eat fatty food. You just need a cute duck and a ketchup dip (which may not be very healthy either). This ad is a personal favourite of mine; It makes me want to add ketchup to anything. Sliced bread, rice, even baked beans.
But as with all things, there are of course grey areas, foods which claim ‘nutritional value’ but never ever mention how much hidden sugar, salt and calories they contain. Whether fortified with Vitamin C, protein or calcium, it’s hard to crack down on foods ‘bursting with goodness’ even though they still make you fat in the long run: ‘You can’t ban my Minute Maid for Kids ad! How else will children get their Vitamin C!’
Let’s begin with stuff you glob over sliced bread.
The tactic here is to bank on the fact that breakfast is the MOST IMPORTANT meal of the day, and your kids HAVE to eat something no matter what. Skippy is also marketed as some sort of ADHD reliever, calming the hyperactive kid down while dosing him with chunky peanut butter. Our parents are too busy to prepare wholemeal bread with lettuce, tomatoes and boiled chicken mash or squeezing fresh orange juice, and companies selling processed spreads and beverages know that ALL ALONG.
Boy, that kinda rules out almost EVERYTHING, does it. There’s still hope for cereal or fruit juice you ask? Or is there? Cococrunch is not only a ‘nutritious breakfast cereal’, it keeps your kid ‘active in school’ (so that they can pass their PSLE). The ad doesn’t tell you what happens if you eat it EVERYDAY, with FULL CREAM milk. They’re Big Cereal, for goodness sake. Of course they want you to eat it everyday. Your kids’ performance in school depends on it. I doubt the Ministry is cruel enough to take Tony the Tiger off the air. Not a ‘Greeaaaat’ move. It’s like killing off Superman.
How about this Marigold ad promoting fruit juice INSTEAD of actual fruits? Someone actually wrote in the Today paper to complain about this too. When was the last time you saw a Sunkist orange ad? You know, that round thing that you need to peel? With your hands?
And who could bear censoring Ribenaberries? These lovable creatures only exist in the TV universe. Technically one could argue that they’re not aiming specifically at kids, but who else would appreciate Ribenaberries, or talking fruits, other than kids?
There’s only so much you can do to stop kids from getting fat. Companies will compensate for the revenue loss by making their packaging more attractive to children, or tying in with toys like Hello Kitty or movie superheroes. Cinemas will continue to sell popcorn and soft drinks without leaving movie-goers much of a choice when we bring the kids to watch Madagascar. The greatest sinner of all, in my opinion, even if they never directly targetted children, was the use of the Avengers to promote the Double Down burger. By Thor’s Hammer, this grisly abomination is bacon between two fillets of heart attacks! You’d become the permanent size of the Hulk in no time.
This is heartening baby-steps taken by our new Minister of Health, but I believe it’s encouraging an active lifestyle that matters more than controlling what and how people eat, and in order for kids to play in the sun more, you probably need them to do less homework (MOE, don’t you dare think this has NOTHING to do with you). Clamping down on direct to consumer ads is just severing the scalp of one hydra; the authorities need to reverse the emotional grapple-hold that fast food giants have on the dreams and fantasies of children and their parents. As long as there are fast food sponsored children’s charities, irresistibly cute mascots and kids being conferred with ambassadorial duties as a Macs spokesperson, our kids will remain slaves to a fast food nation, and continue to ‘upsize’ while at it.