Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Regulatory Rumblings...in Canada?!?!

While in all other areas the Canadian media seems headed toward deregulatory disaster, there have been some interesting developments over the past few months which are starting to suggest that new children's advertising regulation may not be completely out of the question. As reported last week in KidAdLaw, Rosario Marchese, an NDP member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament, has proposed a ban on all food and beverage advertising directed to kids under the age of 13 years. Earlier this month, Marchese introduced a bill, Bill 53 2008, to amend Ontario's Consumer Protection Act to prohibit commercial television advertising for food or drink directed at children under the age of 13. Here's an excerpt from the article:
"What kids see on television is high in calories and low in nutrients," he said. The proposed ban would prohibit ads for healthy as well as snack foods, Marchese conceded. "The general point is that children are very vulnerable and it's very difficult for them to make intellectual distinctions ... between good and bad."

A ban on TV advertising, however, is unlikely to be effective given today's multimedia age, and the migration of children onto the Internet, said Media Awareness Network co-executive director Jane Tallim. Providing children with media education is a better way to protect children, she said. Her Ottawa-based group has a game on its website that teaches children about advertising.

Quebec currently forbids food advertising to children, yet obesity rates have not fallen in that province, which receives TV programming-and the ads accompanying them-from other regions, Tallim noted.

Hmmmm....perhaps some background on the Quebec ban and child obesity rates is in order:

So, the ban Tallim is referring to is the Quebec Consumer Protection Act, which does indeed forbid advertising to children under the age of 13. Only a handful of studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of the ban on curbing child obesity, producing conflicting results and each drawing a fair amount of criticism. Overall, the research in this area has not produced sufficient evidence for Tallim to make the claim that the ban hasn't had any impact on child obesity rates.

One of these studies was conducted by Goldberg in 1990, testing the hypothesis that because the Quebec ban didn't apply to television originating from outside of the province, English-speaking children, who consume a greater amount of English media broadcast from other provinces as well as the US, would be exposed to more advertising than their French-speaking peers. His study revealed that not only did Anglo-Quebecois children consume more US children’s television programming than French-speaking children (1.94 hours a day, compared to 0.76 hours), but that they were also significantly more aware of advertised toys (recognizing nearly twice as many toys as the Franco-Quebecois children). Furthermore, the English-speaking children were found to purchase a significantly greater number of sugared cereals (the most heavily advertised product during children’s television programming during the period of study). Goldberg’s (1990) findings led him to conclude, “The Quebec law served to reduce children's exposure to commercials for sugared cereals and hence appears to have reduced consumption of those cereals. There is no reason to believe that comparable legislation in the US would not have comparable results." Goldberg's findings were supported by a similar study conducted by Caron in 1994.

10 years later, however, another study was conducted which seemed to refute these earlier findings. Ashton et al.'s study of the impact of advertising bans in both Sweden and Quebec found that obesity rates were not much lower in these regions than in the rest of the Western world (see Ashton 2004). It remains difficult, however, to map the trajectory of Quebec’s childhood obesity rates since the initial studies were conducted (i.e. Goldberg and Caron's studies in the early 1990s). It's therefore impossible to determine what this really means in terms of the effectiveness of the ban. For example, has its impact waned over time due to changes in children’s culture or media patterns?. On the other hand, as Livingstone and Helsper (2004) point out, “no baseline measures were taken before the ban was implemented, [and therefore] the possibility remains that the French/English difference” discovered by Goldberg and Caron were actually due to cultural factors.

Another source of confusion in Canada is found within national statistics on child obesity, and what they really mean. In 2004, a national survey was conducted by Statistics Canada (the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS)) which recorded the direct height and weight measurements of a nationally representative sample of Canadian children and adolescents -- the first such survey to be conducted since 1978 (Shields, 2005). From this survey, StatsCan concluded that incidences of overweight among Quebec’s youth (as well as those of Albertan youth) were "significantly below the national level": 23% compared to the national level of 26%. However, while StatsCan interpreted the 3% difference as significant, other sources (such as Media Awareness it seems) have presented the 3% as insignificant, causing some confusion about what the stats mean and how to interpret the difference. Furthermore, although the combined overweight/obesity rates were lower in Quebec, obesity rates (7.1%) were much closer to the national average (8.2%), an extra wrinkle that has made it even harder to figure out what's really going on.

In addition, and as many of these researchers have already pointed out, it's important to remember that even the Quebec Consumer Protection Act is not enacted under ideal conditions. The greatest limitation of the Act remains its narrow application —- namely, that it is limited to media originating from within the province of Quebec. Broadcasts originating from the rest of Canada or from the US that are retransmitted by Quebec cable television companies, for example, are not subject to the Act. As Tallim described, these exceptions, along with the rise in popularity of cross-media integration and new media technologies (such as the internet) greatly diminish the potential of provincial legislation to curb childhood obesity. It seems pretty obvious that targeting television alone is a pretty narrow approach...I'm surprised that Marchese didn't think to include all media, and wonder what the motivation was in limiting his efforts to television advertising.

It's also really important to note that these figures fail take into account other important socio-economic factors, such as the disproportionately high percentage of low-income households in Quebec (19.1%, which according to the 2001 Census represented the largest low-income rate of all the Canadian provinces, compared with a national average of 16.2%). This is a crucial oversight, seeing as income is perhaps the key factor when it comes to obesity rates. As Critser (2003) emphasizes in his excellent book Fat Land, "The point is that class almost always comes first in the equation: class confounded by culture, income inhibited by race or gender, buying power impinged on by ethnicity or immigration status." This is something that even Ashton et al. alluded to, concluding that "Childhood obesity in Quebec is not appreciably different from the rest of Canada, but it is unrealistic for any single intervention to affect such a multifactorial problem."

Anyway....

The article goes on to explain how the whole issue may be "moot" at this point, seeing as how major food advertisers in Canada have recently agreed to "cease advertising snack foods and drinks to children under 12, to stop licensing third-party characters to promote such foods, and to spend more marketing dollars to promote healthier food options and lifestyles." I'm not sure about the "cease" part, but as we all know, these same companies have already tried to circumvent legislation in the US and the EU by "pledging" to "curb" advertising to kids.

All of this is unfolding on the heels of a big, high profile conference held earlier this spring by the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, which examined the links between unhealthy food advertising and child obesity. The conference attendees, along with a jury of experts, concluded the conference with the agreement that a "wide-ranging ban" of these ads is a necessary part of any obesity reduction strategy.

There's absolutely no telling how it'll all pan out (as I've said many times before, the trend in Canada right now is toward deregulation), but it's exciting to finally see some movement on these issues in my own country!


Works Cited:

Ashton, B., Morton, H., and Mithen, J. (2003, November). Children's health or corporate wealth? The case for banning advertising to children. Coalition on Food Advertising to Children. Australia.

Ashton, D. (2004). Food advertising and obesity. Journal of the royal society of medicine 97(2): 51-52.

Caron, A. (1994). Children, advertising and television choices in a new media environment. In Children and Advertising: A fair game? Young Media Australia & New College Institute of Values.

Critser, G. (2003). Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Goldberg, M. E. (1990). A Quasi-Experiment Assessing the Effectiveness of TV-Advertising Directed to Children. Journal of Marketing Research, 27(4), 445-454.

Livingstone, S., & Helsper, E. (2004, May 7). Advertising foods to children: Understanding promotion in the context of children’s daily lives, a review of the literature. Prepared for the Research Department of the Office of Communications (OFCOM) (revised 6/7/04): London, UK.

Shields, M. (2005) Measured Obesity Overweight Canadian children and adolescents. Nutrition: Findings from the Canadian Community Health Survey Issue no. 1. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada.

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