Bloomberg vs. Iger: Will Food Bans Really Bring Sustainable Change to Obesity?|
Which is a better path to reduce childhood obesity: legislation or changes in advertising?
Since Bloomberg took office in New York, the residents of Manhattan and the boroughs have all been party to quite a bit of chatter-and some very decisive action-related to reducing obesity and unhealthy food. He was responsible, of course, for legislation requiring restaurants with multiple locations to post the caloric content of their menu items; Bloomberg also banned the use of trans fats in restaurants (can you believe that was six years ago? Not to mention that it’s been in effect for a full four years now). And now he’s gone after banning super-size soda.
What I wonder, though, is whether legislation can get the job done when it comes to childhood obesity-or are major media organizations and the advertisements that they choose to air having a bigger impact?
Forget the “Is this fascist?” debate– focus on the “is this going to be effective?” debate
There is a debate beyond the big debate going on with libertarians right now-the “if he can restrict our soda sizes, he can restrict far too much about us” debate, which is answered by the fact that the Mayor’s responsibility to regulate commerce very clearly includes the ability to create restrictions like this. That further debate, which I haven’t heard as of yet, has to do with the way that for-profit media has responded to the trend of food legislation.
There are clearly non-market issues at work at the heart of the obesity and food restriction debate. It is not necessarily beneficial to a company’s bottom-line to observe reasonable restrictions when selling and marketing food products. More sugar tends to be more attractive to consumers (thanks, evolution!), and companies that are looking to widen their profit margins do very well to observe this fact.
Of course, when advertising to children is involved, the issue of whether creating a food product that’s extremely unhealthy and then marketing it is alright takes on a new light. A non-market light. The “laissez faire” approach is clearly useless here: by the time the average mommies and daddies get concerned enough about high-sugar foods to figure out a way to successfully teach their children about healthy eating habits, many of them will have died off already.
Can food bans alone produce real change?
Bloomberg is seeking to mitigate the damage of young people drinking lots and lots of high-fructose corn syrup-saturated soda by legislating change. That sends a clear signal to restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, and the media that advertise them: change is coming.
But, given that the signal has been sent, are further food bans going to be necessary to fundamentally change the way that food is marketed to children?
Disney hopped on the childhood obesity bandwagon yesterday when Bob Iger announced that their television channels would no longer advertise high-sodium products like Lunchables and high-sugar ones like Capri-Sun. [editor's note: there goes my childhood]. Were they doing it with some political motivation? Almost certainly. But Disney is a trendsetter, and the trend has now been put out there.
If media organizations commit to advertising for companies that promise healthy, balanced meals and are committed to reducing childhood obesity, is the practice of banning food going to be necessary? Will it change, fundamentally, the way that the American people think of food consumption?
Could the advertising of the future make Americans more conscious of what they’re consuming?
I’m interested not because of this particular issue per se, but because of the further implication for conscious eating. Whether Americans have the capacity to truly understand the complex processes that go into the foodservice industry, and to act consciously around that complexity, is strongly related to the way that those foodservice companies are depicted in their advertisements. At the moment, there’s no “there” there. Food comes from nowhere, and the waste from it disappears into nowhere. It has no impact on the human body, and it provides long-lasting happiness. This is the American Dream.
But of course, this is a fantasy-and, just as it does its part to promote childhood obesity by depicting happy, healthy children eating high-sugar foods, the advertising industry and the media that support it do the same for the lack of consciousness about the sustainability of our foodservice industry.
Can advertising change that if companies like Disney, NBC, Fox, Viacom, and the others change their practices?