Nick Cohen: Junk the food ads

Most of the ads on the Cartoon Network are predictable. Children with access to satellite or cable are pushed Pepsi, Walkers, Coco-Pops and all their imitators and competitors, and offered every available means to dose themselves with sugar, salt and fat. To the Government and the advertising industry, the propaganda has nothing to do with the explosion in childhood obesity which, according to the Chief Medical Officer, may lead to the next generation suffering from the first fall in average life expectancy in 100 years. Obesity and the fatal diseases that drag along behind it are the result of lack of exercise, they say, not of the advertising that seeps its way into every corner of children's lives via television, text messaging, the internet and schools.

The point was rubbed home by Tessa Jowell and John Reid last week when they helped ITV to launch Britain on the Move, a parsonical campaign that exhorted young and old alike to work their bodies. No mention was made of the advertising industry, from which, coincidentally, ITV draws all its revenues. Instead, men and women were told that they must engage in vigorous vacuum cleaning or brisk walks up and down stairs if they wanted to look like Jowell and Reid - the Posh and Becks of the political class - while children were told they must spend an hour a day running and jumping.

When presented with the unlovely coalition of politics and commerce, most people instinctively know that they are being swindled. But how? The ads on the Cartoon Network, Britain's largest commercial children's channel, provide a small clue. They aren't all for junk food and toys. If you have access, you can tune in and, amid the vignettes of Michael Owen, David Beckham and Gary Lineker topping-up their poverty-line wages by encouraging the young to pig out, there are apparently incongruous ads for money-lenders and ambulance-chasing lawyers. Have you tripped over a broken paving stone or suffered complications during an operation? No-win, no-fee solicitors will take up your case. Have you got so many mortgage and credit card debts that you have nothing to spare? Norton Finance and companies like it will offer you anything from £1,000 to £100,000.

Children can't brief solicitors or borrow six-figure sums. The ads are aimed at their parents - usually mothers - and are a tribute to pester power. When a mother says that the costs of consuming are becoming too high, helpful commercials tell her children that she can find the money to return to the marketplace by suing the NHS or by gambling that the property market won't crash by remortgaging against the value of her house.

By any ordinary standard, this is exploitation of the sickest sort, but it passes unremarked because of an iron separation between the theory and practice of what doctors call Britain's 'obesogenic' culture. I've spent the past few months making a documentary for Channel 4 on the power of advertising - this isn't a plug: it went out last night - and met the the dual consciousness of politicians and advertisers at every turn. As a working assumption, they all know that, in practice, children's culture is saturated with advertising and that the advertising works. But they can never admit it in public because a statement of the obvious might push Parliament to follow other European countries and ban advertising aimed at children.

Instead of serious reform, we have a laughable campaign by the Government and ITV for the nation to touch its toes, which takes great care not to say what every nutritionist knows - that you need to be an athlete to burn off the fats and sugars in junk foods Medical researchers at Oxford University calculate that it would take the average child 45 minutes to run off a bag of crisps; one hour and four minutes to run off a chocolate bar The Lancet reported a few years ago that a child who had a burger and fries needed to run a marathon.

Faced with these disquieting figures, it's easier - far easier - for Ministers to engage in exhortation and moral uplift than to take on powerful interests. Indeed, they go further and create a looking-glass world in which the parents, teachers and under-funded public health workers who are demanding tough regulation are the truly powerful interest, while advertisers and processed food manufacturers are the victims. As Jowell explained to the confused: 'The danger is that the argument is won by default by those who argue for an outright advertising ban and that is an intervention about which, as you know, I remain sceptical.'

This is an outright inversion of the real world where power and the ability to intervene where it matters lie with the advertisers and the manufacturers, and it isn't the only example of denial. In public, Kellogg's denies that its advertising can make children pester their parents into buying sugar-coated cereals: 'We would never encourage pester power,' it said. But when it advertises for analysts to dissect children's desires, it is explicit that children and adults can and will be manipulated. 'Coco-Pops, Fruit Winders, Cereal Milk Bars and Frosties are some of the brands you need to get under your skin in this role,' an ad for a senior researcher in Kellogg's 'kids brands' division read. 'You will spend your time understanding kids, finding out what interests them, establishing what other brands they associate with and appreciating the realm of pester power.'

On the one hand, it is taken as read in the industry that children don't go into shops to browse, but head straight for the brands that advertising has put in their heads. On the other, executives absolutely deny that the stupendous increases in sales of junk foods are anything to do with them. British children spend more time watching television than being taught by teachers, but it is an article of publicly professed faith to deny that television has an effect.

Denial must be maintained because the Food Standards Agency is showing vague signs of life and making feeble threats to regulate advertising. The agency commissioned research by Professor Gerard Hastings of Strathclyde University, which found, unsurprisingly, that children were influenced by advertising and that the adverts they saw were overwhelmingly for processed, junk food. (You don't get rich selling vegetables.) It was a scrupulous piece of work, which has, predictably, been rubbished by the industry.

The advertisers and manufacturers have refused to accept that propaganda has an effect. For good measure, they don't accept the need for health warnings on fatty, salty and sugary foods because they don't accept there is such a thing as an unhealthy food. They have to hold the line, not merely because they may see their profits reduced in Britain, but also because of the potentially enormous markets in China and India. The danger from their point of view is that, if Britain regulates, the governments of developing countries will follow its example.

What we are seeing is a repeat of the battles over cigarette advertising. In private the companies admit they're hawking dangerous products - 'We don't smoke that shit,' a manager of RJ Reynolds tobacco company explained to Dave Goerlitz, an actor employed to advertise Winstons. 'We reserve the right to sell it to the young, the poor, the black and the stupid.'

In public, the need for health warnings, let alone advertising bans, is denied with an incredulous fervour. In private, the industry knows the effects on society of its products - 'With one exception,' wrote a scientist for BAT in 1958 after touring the laboratories of Philip Morris, 'the individuals we met believed smoking causes cancer.'

In public, the obvious is denied for as long as possible, as much to protect emerging markets in the poor world as established markets in the rich. Health campaigners I spoke to were in no doubt that they had a long struggle on their hands. This is the first Labour government in history from which Ministers retire to seats on corporate boards rather than academia or journalism. Chris Smith, Jowell's predecessor, now receives a £30,000 stipend from Disney. David Mills, her husband, was a director of one of Bernie Ecclestone's companies when the Labour donor persuaded Tony Blair to exempt Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising.

These links don't mean that Ministers are or have been corrupt, simply that they're more at ease in spacious boardrooms than the cluttered back-street offices of public health campaigners. For all that, my guess is that advertising aimed at children will be banned in the end. The pressure from obese patients on NHS budgets is already strong and will soon be unbearable. In a free country, the Government can't respond by forcing children to exercise or eat their greens. All it can do is what it did with cigarettes and dam the flow of propaganda.

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