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.