Consumer choice turns us all into children

A stressed-out single mother will always choose placatory soft drinks over a pitched battle with a toddler
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The Independent Online

As everyday stories of less-than-perfect parenting go, my friend Sacha's tale of an encounter on the communal stairwell beats the band. Her upstairs neighbour was returning from the dentist with her four-year-old. He had just had all of his baby teeth removed, and was carrying them in a bag.

His mother seemed full of resigned and mystified wonder that such a fate had befallen her son. Sacha knew why this calamity had occurred though, because this was the first time she had seen the boy with a bag in his hand and not a baby bottle filled with cola.

The quotidian nature of this nevertheless shocking piece of child abuse is backed up by all kinds of statistics. Young children, en masse, are eating and drinking too much sugary, salty, fatty rubbish, and it is resulting in poor health. Parents, experts and government are now expressing grave worries about the state of the diet of British children.

Tooth decay is the least of it. The looming problem facing us is childhood obesity, running at 8.5 per cent among British six-year-olds and 15 per cent of 15-year-olds. Labelled "a ticking time-bomb", it is predicted that this trend, despite the potential we all now have to live longer, healthier lives, will lead to a relative decline in the lifespan of the upcoming generation. For many, at least part of the solution lies in restricting the amount and kind of advertising that is directed at children. Even the most health-conscious of parents find such advertising obtrusive, because it is designed to be obtrusive. Food adverts aimed at children are designed to promote "pester power", and they work marvellously well.

Thomas the Tank Engine pictures on packets of reconstituted cow's eyelids prompt excited demands in the supermarket from children barely capable of speaking at all. Sportsmen's endorsements of unhealthy snacks lead to disbelief when a child is told that such things are bad for him. Desirable toys in undesirable cereal packets make for unending clashes over Cocoa Pops. And so on. The high water mark of my own experience of pester power came when one of my sons was about three. "Mum! You have to get a new washing machine," he told me. "It is called a Dyson." The manufacturer had been advertising on a children's channel, under the correct impression that it's bold design in purple and yellow would appeal to kids.

One answer to the dark manipulations of the food and drink industry - and they're by no means the only ones swamping children with information about choices they've no business to be making - is to arm yourself with knowledge and to deliver to your child a firm, uncompromising "no". This is the recommended responsible response in the free-market world of "informed choice".

It is also the food and drink industry's response. When called before the Health Select Committee recently, Martin Glenn, president of PepsiCo UK, had this to say. "I think obesity will not be tackled by restricting freedom of choice. The way to tackle this is by encouraging positive lifestyle choices, rather than negative. It is about education, not coercion."

Until now, this has been the Government's preferred option as well. It has shied away from tackling the destructive power of the food and drink industry, giving the excuse that too much intervention in consumer choices would look like the machinations of a "nanny state".

Finally though, it is waking up to how silly it is to stand by watching multinationals spending billions on telling children to eat and drink appealing stuff that is bad for them, then hoping to counter it by spending a fraction of that amount on low-level health campaigns advising parents to give their children five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

Tessa Jowell, Culture Secretary, this week instructed Ofcom, the new broadcasting regulator, to look into significantly tightening the rules around advertising comestibles to children. Ofcom is expected to introduce restrictions on the use of children's television presenters, cartoon characters and celebrities in the selling of food which is high in sugar and salt to children.

The Government is looking into other measures as well, like introducing more prominent labelling on unhealthy food. Indeed, after some litigation against purveyors of unhealthy food in the US, food and drink companies are considering doing something similar anyway, in order to protect themselves from the possibility of future legal proceedings.

But as welcome as these measures may be, they're pretty marginal. Almost by definition adults concerned enough to be worried by their offspring's corrosive consumer choices are those who are educated enough to understand that the choices their children are making are wrong.

It is telling that even they feel unable to counteract the effect of irresponsible marketing on their children. But it is obvious too that among less educated parents, like our friend in the stairwell, only interventions of the most powerful kind are likely to change habits.

The Government secretly knows this. It admitted as much in a passage in a document issued as part of its own little marketing exercise, the Big Conversation. "A growing contribution to health inequalities now comes from the higher rates of smoking, poor diet and lack of physical exercise among poorer people." The Government has floated the possibility of a ban on advertising unhealthy food to children in response to this.

But actually, this is nonsense, because in order to ban the advertising of unhealthy food to children, you'd have to ban it pretty much altogether, and there's no way that the Blair government is considering that. Children watch television which is not designed for them, they pass by billboards, and they see the promotions taking place in supermarkets. The idea that children live in a separate world, into which no adult concerns ever leak, is absurd. Further, however much they are marketed to directly, and however pernicious that marketing is, children are not the people who make purchasing decisions. Adults are.

Adults may complain bitterly about how badly their children are affected by television advertising. But that doesn't stop nine out of 10 of them, as one survey found this week, from placing a television in the bedroom of eight-to-15-year-old children. Parents who don't like the adverts their children are seeing on television clearly aren't worried enough to monitor television watching by restricting it to a communal space in the home.

Is that really the fault of unhealthy food manufacturers and their nasty adverts? Or is it just a measure of how much parents cave in to other consumer pressures, unassisted by the promotional wonders of cartoon characters or movie tie-ins? The truth is that it isn't only children who make the wrong choices when exposed to market forces. It's just that only when children are directly concerned, we dare to challenge the fake wisdom of the free market.

The idea is that we should all be free to make our consumer choices. The reality is that the consumer choices of adults - idiotic enough to spend £1,000 on a bag, proclaim their status to the world through the agency of a big daft car, or get obese in later life in a much greater proportion than children - are manipulated just as cynically and just as successfully as those of children.

A stressed-out single mother will always choose placatory soft drinks over a pitched battle with a toddler's whim of iron, and it is difficult to see who but the state can pick up the bill for such folly. The truth is that the more choices that humans have, the more the state will have to nanny us. Free markets, far from leading to slimmer, fitter governments, lead to great big sprawling, expensive ones, picking up the pieces. We must grasp this harsh fact soon.