Should Children’s Ads at Christmas be put on a diet?


Radio Wiltshire’s lunchtime programme on Wednesday 6th December talked about the power and psychology of advertising. This is in response to a recent story about a city councillor who wants the Coca Cola truck advert banned because it encourages the drinking of sugary fizzy drinks when as he says the world is in “the grip of an obesity epidemic”. On Christmas Day, the average person will consumer nearly 6000 calories (three times the daily average).

So, should advertising for food at Christmas be toned down?

What is clear is that there is an obesity crisis.  There are currently 42m children under 5 and between 155m and 200m school age children obese or overweight.  The figure for adults is due to reach 2.7bn worldwide by 2025[1].  It’s also clear that advertising plays a role.  It has been quantified as 2% of the influence on dietary intake[2].  Over a lifetime and over a lot of people that can be a big effect.

In fact, in 2006, as a result of these and other research findings, advertising food and drink high in salt, sugar and fat was banned in and around TV programmes of particular appeal to those 16.

But  I’m not in favour of toning down food advertising at Christmas.  For a start the traditional Christmas roast with meat and certainly more than 2 veg is pretty good for you – even if Christmas pud is pretty hefty on the calories.  But more importantly Christmas is a time when food is the centrepiece for getting together as a family.  My research for UNICEF[3] showed very clearly that what children want more than anything else is to spend more time with their family and this is what Christmas is about.  So, the psychological benefits of sitting down with mums and dads, and grannies and grandpas and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters is likely to outweigh the calorific damage of one day of overindulgence.

If I were to fire warning shots about advertising at Christmas I’d go for how it fuels materialism instead.  It’s not good for our well-being.  A fairly substantial body of research [4] agrees that those who feel bad about themselves and who are exposed to advertising are much more likely to rush to purchase all the toys, gadgets and electronics that we are urged to buy.  They think it will make them feel better.  But of course it doesn’t – it just creates a vicious circle of watching, wanting and poor well-being.  It can also cause tension in families as kids ask for things they can’t have and parents feel endlessly guilty about buying stuff and about not buying stuff.  No one really wins apart from the retailers and the brands.

It’s quite hard to block ads out too because the really subtle ones that you don’t even realise are advertising are the ones that work best.  This is because if we don’t notice that its advertising we can’t put up a coginitive counter argument.  Digital ads are particularly powerful when embedded in content or in games that kids don’t realise are adverts.

So be aware of advertising, don’t go into debt to try to make your kids happy with “stuff” (it won’t work) and enjoy your Christmas dinner as a way of reconnecting with kith and kin … until the arguments over the remote begin …

[1] Kraak, V., Vandevijvere, S., Sacks, G., Brinsden, H., Hawkes, C., Barquera, S., Lobstein, S. and Swinburn, B. (2016). “Progress achieved in restricting the marketing of high-fat, sugary and salty food and beverage products to children.” Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, BLT.15.158667

[2] Livingstone, S. “Television advertising of food and drink products to children. London Prepared for the Research Department of the Office of Communications (OFCOM)>


[4] See Nairn, A., Advertising and Child Well-Being, in Handbook of Child Well-Being: Theories, Methods and Policies in Global Perspective, Ben-Arieh, A, Casas, F., Korbin, J, eds.  Springer.

In our book Consumer Kids we exposed the practice of companies using children to sell to their friends.

The Advertising Association finally created a Pledge and encouraged their members to sign up.

L’Oreal (owner of The Bodyshop) were one of the first signatories to promise that they would not use under 16s in peer-to-peer marketing.

The advertising regulators (CAP) decided that this pledge was strong enough and the practice so infrequent that there was no need to regulate the practice although they do signpost the pledge on their website and indicate that it is not acceptable

Yet here is a very big brand using school fetes and Facebook to put pressure on 12 and 13 year olds to host parties where they sell to their friends.



Last month I spent 2 fascinating days at the United Nations in New York with 25 other experts from all over the world. We had been called by Farida Shaheed, the Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights.  What we were debating was the extent to which advertising and marketing impacts on these Rights.

Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realisation, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organisation and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”

Our discussions were extremely wide ranging.

Arguably our cultural rights are threatened when media ownership is highly concentrated and funded by an advertising business model.  Inevitably programming will be aimed at audiences most appealing to advertisers – what happens to programmes for those with little spending power?

Billboards which we have no option but to walk past present another possible threat to our rights.  Marcin Rutkiewicz talked of the situation in Poland where billboards are poorly regulated so that people can wake up and find a billboard literally in front of their window.  Gwenaelle Gobe talked of her film This Space Available which found that in North American often no legal action was taken against commercial companies posting billboards illegally whilst graffiti artists posting in the same space were quickly prosecuted.

From billboards we turned to neuroscience and talked about some of my work that shows that much of the influence of advertising happens without our conscious awareness.  If we are not free to control the impact of commercial messages does this infringe our rights?

Much of the second day was devoted to talking about children and their own special rights.  We heard about product placement in children’s tests in USA and sponsored  art competitions in Brazil where children are disqualified for not using the sponsoring company logo in their designs.  There was wide support for the UK industry ban on using under 16s as brand ambassadors – selling to their friends.

And what of our art galleries?  When corporations sponsor an exhibition should they be allowed to have a say in the content? This market is currently barely regulated yet could have an enormous impact on the diversity of the art that we  encounter and on the freedom of our artists.

We are now feeding into the report writing process and Farida Shaheed will present her recommendations to States next year.

Project Wild Thing film is released on 25th October at Arts cinemas across the UK.  Buy your ticket to-day.



TEDx Ghent talk now on You Tube

September 24th, 2013


Consumer Kids and Our Future