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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

junk food + shock advertising « Previous | |Next »
January 11, 2011

In his Fight against fat: when advertising goes bad at the ABC's Unleashed Paul Harrison makes two good points about attempts to address the obesity problem in Australia. The cost of obesity in Australia is estimated at $8.3 billion a year and will be a major cause of rising health expenditure in the next 20 years. This means less for schools, education, transport and welfare.

A major proportion of the current generation may not live as long as their parents. And while they survive, they will create a heavier cost burden on society through medications, surgery, consultations and lost productivity.

Hungry Jacks.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, Hungry Jack's, 2010

Harrison's first point is that we are eating nearly 25 per cent more processed food (high fat, high sugar, and high salt) but have not really changed our activity levels. The second point relates to the advertising designed to shock Australians into giving up junk food and sugary soft drinks. The strategy is is to:

Frighten the masses. Give 'em the facts. Change their behaviour...But shock advertising, on its own, is unlikely to have the desired effect of getting people to stop eating junk food and eating more healthily... ads that were designed to trigger guilt amongst the target market actually triggered a defensive processing mechanism ... However, the bigger problem in relation to obesity, and the more difficult one to counter, has been the growing sophistication of all facets of marketing to create an environment where highly processed and energy dense food is easily available to those living in developed countries.

Shock advertising can work, but it has to be more than a couple of scary images, followed by an educational message. What is required is a change in our behavior.

Harrison adds that:

Over the past 30 years, consumers have been encouraged to eat more through highly sophisticated marketing activities, which includes supply chain management allowing easy access to convenience and processed food, lower pricing, including better "value" and longer perishability of processed foods, as well as integrated marketing campaigns that encourage consumers to purchase and consume foods that provide a high fat, high sugar, and high salt "hit".

I guess that people kinda know the problem and they are uncomfortable with being overweight and obese, but they find it difficult to address the problem through changing their diet and increasing their exercise. Radical changes are required in everyday life. It is at this point that people need help.

There is a lot of content buried in "policy interventions" and "change programs". What does that mean over and above industry self-regulation on big food issues such as trans fats and labelling? Does it mean subsidizing fitness memberships should be seriously because diet alone will provide limited results? Medicalizing the problem may seem counterproductive to public health officials; but it it forces us to realize the complexity of obesity and appreciate that it is not solely based on individual behavior.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:55 AM | | Comments (5)


The libertarian assumption is that we should all be free to do what we want, as far as possible, and if some people’s lifestyle choices involve snacking on deep-fried Mars bars and triple-processed cheeseburgers, other people have no business interfering, still less the government.

Libertarians believe individuals should be allowed to pursue their own interests unless their behaviour negatively impacts on others. So individuals should be allowed to buy the food they want but drunk drivers should be constrained because they harm others.

Do individuals have enough information to effectively pursue their interests as distinct from their desires? Or are they always able to act on their interests when they know them?

Obesity places a burden on the public health system quite apart from the many personal miseries involved. More money is spent on diabetes (two-thirds of which is the avoidable type 2 associated with obesity) with its increased risk among the obese of heart disease and other serious illness such as kidney failure. More young people are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, something previously seen only in people over 40.

So it is an issue for public health as well as an individual lifestyle and individual responsibility issue. Second-hand smoke as a threat to an another individuals health, but an individual’s decision to eat at McDonald’s does not pose a threat to anyone. else.

The standard response by libertarians is that government interference is already at the root of the problem. Socialized healthcare, for instance, prevents people from bearing the full impact of their lifestyle choices and undermines personal responsibility for health. If people had to buy private health insurance in the marketplace, factors like weight would be factored into premiums and people would have a far greater incentive to look after themselves.

The other big problem say the libertarians is the cost of food –it's often cheaper to buy a Big Mac than it is to buy fresh, healthy ingredients and prepare a well-balanced meal. But how much cheaper would fresh produce be if it weren't for our farm subsidies and agricultural tariffs? If we want good food to be cheaper, free trade is the obvious way forward.

Therefore, more freedom and more responsibility is the right answer. More government is not.

The libertarians "my body, my choice" means not only that the government shouldn't be able to ban your favorite junk food or ship you off to a fat-farm gulag, but that you should be able to gorge yourself into obesity without having to endure societal disapproval or lectures from do-gooders.

The ultra-libertarian opposition is reinforced by a populist one which regards healthy, low-calorie food as elitist and effete, and hot dogs, Big Macs, and sugar- and fat-laden desserts as the mark of real Australians.

So the latest round in the culture wars is a food fight. Hence the right-wing griping about the food police.

Obesity is overtaking smoking as the leading cause of preventable death. Michael Smith points out in The Age that:

The Australian Government, when considering taxes or advertising bans on junk food or meaningful food labelling laws or limits on the amount of fat, salt and sugar in our food, is up against a $100 billion industry concentrated in a few big corporate hands.

It's going to be a long fight--just like tobacco.

George, farm subsidies? what are they? I'd love some.

Are you confusing farm gate price with retail pricing when complaining about the cost of food. It is more than apparent supermarkets will buy their produce from the cheapest supplier, so in general the Australian farmer gets a world parity price (give or take export/import costs depending on whether there is surplus production or not).

Exception: Bananas etc where AQIS provides a trade barrier - for good reason.