Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Some of the right moves (maybe) for all the wrong reasons (definitely)

That was my initial reaction to the news that a British ban on marketing "unhealthy" foods during children's television programming is now being looked to as a model by other European countries.

The rationale behind the ban was that it would--can you guess?--help fight obesity in British children. It's a testament to the pervasiveness of fatphobia: Only the O word could be a strong enough incentive to go up against the powerful free-market forces that throw commercials at kids.

Under normal circumstances, to suggest that maybe we don't need to turn kids into little consumers is something like saying you're a commie pinko who doesn't believe in capitalism. (Which I don't, but that's another story.) But when you brandish the O word, it seems, even the junk food marketers hang their putative heads in shame and back off. A little.

That this comes in the context of a British government ad campaign to fight obesity that has no idea what it's doing is hardly surprising. In fact, the ad campaign is a perfect microcosm of everything that's wrong with the war on obesity in the first place.

Conflicts over how exactly to execute this campaign abound. As the New York Times reported yesterday,

The government, for instance, wanted to be able to keep junk food brands from using the [newly developed anti-obesity] logo, but the food industry wanted to leave that decision to marketers.

Already we're landed smack in the midst of the debate over what, exactly, constitutes healthy and unhealthy food. Which, I need hardly add, the British government is not going to resolve, because, as we keep saying here, there are no unhealthy foods. There may be patterns of eating that aren't so good for you, but we know what happens when you demonize certain foods as "unhealthy": They become ever more appealing and powerful.

This is just one example of the kind of ridiculousness the British government is about to get into. Some of the suggestions in its plan to reduce childhood obesity seem positive, like promoting bicycle riding (great!) and offering cooking lessons in schools (also great, if we're talking about real cooking and not what passes for school cooking, which is opening packets and boxes).

But I find it very telling indeed that it takes the dreaded O word to go up against the monied powers that be. Marketing to children is just plain wrong, folks, whether you're selling Barbie dolls, candy bars, or educational computer games. It's wrong because all advertising is a form of manipulation, and our cultural values didn't use to support manipulating young children. And they still shouldn't.

Meanwhile, the Brits are busy fighting over what the logo for this new anti-obesity campaign should be. I'd love to see what's on the table: A headless fattie with a red line through him/her? A piece of chocolate cake with a red line through it? How about a cutesy marketing jingle about not stuffing your face? Really, the mind boggles at the possibilities.

If only all this energy could be used for good. For making the lives of children and adults truly better, and not just a knee-jerk response to the latest hysteria.


Anonymous said...

The problem with doing the right thing for the wrong reasons (or the wrong thing for the right reasons for that matter) is that whatever was wrong with it is now validated. Possibly, just possibly, the idea of not manipulating children will hold through as an idea, but more likely the validated reason will be used to ban other "wrong" things.

And, as we can already know, "wrong" changes on a near daily basis, and was pretty confused to begin with.

mary said...

Could it be they're looking to use a swastika on their logo?
"we care" is probably the lie they believe they are spewing and sadly what they truly believe is helpful.

May as well step up and put x's on the foreheads of those of us on the border...just in case anyone's wondering if we are obese or just overweight.
There's something very wrong about all this. It promotes hate, which is the most toxic disease we have. Hate for oneself and hate for others, no matter, it's destructive. I am not afraid nor against "healthy" eating.For myself I define it as balance without sacrificing the chocolate cake in life. Even large people can have an eating disorder which requires support and guidance in overcoming so I am very tolerant of the different places we may be in this.
We must be mindful that we don't shoot every over weight person who says they are learning to eat healthy. To them it may mean that they are getting a handle on habits that are the true opposite of not eating.... binges or eating without knowledge of how a body works best. An anti-you logo in their face is no more helpful to the overweight than a anti -anorexia sign is too an anorexic. It lacks compassion. It's forgets genetics and implies intent to offend when it's really none of our business why or how someone is the way they are. There is so much more to us than the face we are born with or our size.
We definitely need a neutral place where we aren't debating one another but free to speak about how we've come to this point and how we can begin to FIX it.

I think we need to fight this lovingly by telling them what we really need. It's as if an anal retentive ED is running the world and we need to step up and knock the messages off the pedestal. What we need is messages that SHOUT that we aren't buying the BS and all people have a place in this world exactly as they are, we all have a role to play and it's not up to the gov't to save us. They're saving us here in the US too.: O
Even if, as in the UK, they have national health care the truth is that it's the peoples own money paying for this which means they have an important voice.
Got winded again....oops.

emmy. said...

i think that's great and all, but companies should be able to market whatever they want.

it's the parents that should be teaching their kids healthier eating habits and, after all, the parents are the ones buying their kids food. they need to take more responsibility for what their kids are eating.

and p.s. thanks for linking to me :)

Harriet said...

Hi Emmy,

I don't agree. We protect all kinds of vulnerable populations, don't we? And shouldn't we?

If you were a parent you would know that it's nearly impossible to fight the entire mainstream culture, unless you move your family to the woods and live like Thoreau. :-) The messages at home cannot compete in the short term with the razzle-dazzle of marketing hype directed very cunningly at children.

I believe society has responsibilities to protects its most vulnerable members, and that those responsibilities trump any free market bullshit. Because think about it. Who does that benefit? The corporations. And their bottom line is more important than my child's health because . . . ?

You're welcome for the link.

Anonymous said...

My stepdaughters and sons eat a rather healthy diet. They love fruits and vegetables and eat very little junk food. It's parents that teach our children good eating habits. Your children will learn to love vegetables if you love vegetables. You can't teach your children to eat healthy if you aren't setting the right example.