Editor’s Note: This story was first published in February, 2012 and updated in March, 2013.
TORONTO – Kids who don’t see a cheeseburger Happy Meal when they watch TV are less likely to bug their parents to have one, according to a Canadian study.
Ban fast food ads targeting children and watch obesity rates decline – it’s a simple recommendation, and one a University of British Columbia marketing and policy expert suggests it’s key to helping Canadian children avoid unhealthy eating.
After studying Quebec households, Sauder School of Business professor Tirtha Dhar found that advertising bans that bar commercials aimed at children resulted in fewer kids eating fast food and kids who weighed less than their national counterparts.
In 1980, Quebec imposed legislation that banned advertisements for toys and fast food aimed at children under 13 in print and electronic media. The legislation was the first of its kind.
Dhar is the first to study the impact of Quebec’s landmark decision.
Under the three-decades-old Quebec Consumer Protection Act, television shows with an audience made up of at least 15 per cent of kids cannot air child-targeted ads. Instead, ads for cars or dishwasher detergent are aired during Saturday morning cartoons while adult-friendly programmed is usually paired with toy ads.
Data on audience composition is compiled by the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement (BBM Canada) and is then utilized to help determine which ads can accompany certain shows.
“Fast food chains, such as McDonald’s can still advertise during late-night shows, but not during afternoon cartoons,” Dhar told Global News.
“To the best of my knowledge, this is the most comprehensive advertising regulation targeting children.”
Within the past 10 years, other countries have followed in Quebec’s footsteps, including Norway, the United Kingdom and Greece, which bans toy advertising on television between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. In Sweden, all advertising aimed at kids 12 and under is banned.
Dhar and his co-author Kathy Baylis, a University of Illinois professor, studied Statistics Canada data from 1984 to 1992 that listed household spending on fast food in francophone families with children in Quebec.
After sifting through the StatsCan data to compare the spending and eating habits of households in Quebec and Ontario, where the ban wasn’t in affect, the study suggested that the ban cut money spent on fast food in Quebec by 13 per cent per week. Dhar and Bayles estimated that the steep cut in expenses meant a decrease of 11 million to 22 million fast food meals eaten per year, or 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion fewer calories consumed by kids.
Dhar said that the annual drop in household fast food purchases represents the equivalent of $88 million U.S. in 2010.
The pair’s complete findings were published in the recent issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.
Canada’s Childhood Obesity Foundation says that obesity rates in children have almost tripled in the past 25 years, with about 26 per cent of the nation’s 2-to 17-year olds facing weight issues or obesity.
Yet Quebec has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in Canada even as data shows the province’s children have one of the most sedentary lifestyles, Dhar said, pointing to 2005 Statistics Canada data.
The researchers note that the statistics were from the 1980s and 1990s, before the emergence of the Internet and social media advertising.
Dhar also says that policymakers shouldn’t use the banning of fast food ads as the magic bullet to solve the country’s problem with escalating obesity rates.
“Advertising regulations targeting children can be part of a comprehensive package to battle obesity,” Dhar told Global News, pointing to food education and parental care as other aspects.
Businesses could also benefit from a fast food advertising ban, Dhar insists. The typical argument is that advertising to kids helps to create “customer lifetime equity” by creating a loyal consumer at an early age.
But children and teens are fickle, their preferences and tastes change as they mature, said Dhar.
“In many cases, firms advertise excessively even in cases where return is minimal due to competition,” said Dhar. In the carbonated soft drinks category alone, advertisers spent nearly $20 per American teenager on targeted advertising. “So an advertising ban can in fact help firms avoid this pitfall.”
Dhar hopes to study other product categories, such as toys to see if regulations have helped or hindered society.