Richard North: Junk food advertising is not the problem

From a speech by the Media Fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs, given to the Social Market Foundation
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Should we ban junk food advertising to children? All the evidence I have seen says that bans don't work; where there has been a ban, bad behaviour continues. There is also good deal of evidence that children are savvy consumers of media. Advertising is the world in which they have to grow up, in the same sense that they have to grow up in a world with hot water in kettles and roads full of killing machines.

I think the core of the issue may be that the parent is subjected to "pester power". I guess that's true, but when wasn't it? Parents have always had to deal with their child's yearnings, and what parents do about it is to say no. Advertising merely produces the luxuriant opportunity for parents to say no to children - that can often be a good thing provided the parent does it fairly.

I feel we're at tremendous risk of patronising the poor in discussing the banning of junk food advertising. I'm sure Marie Antoinette would have been able to put a spin on her little mantra of "letting the poor eat cake" to the effect that the poor are defended from pester power rather better than the rich because, after all, they're broke; they can not only say "No, I don't want you to have it," but "No, I can't afford it" as well. Rich parents are always open to the accusation that if they wanted to, they could.

To ban advertising junk food to children would be to reduce the inoculative power that children get from exposure to media. Campaigners habitually, in the words of Anthony Daniels, pathologise things. So we end up pathologising food, pathologising advertising, pathologising the business of being a child or being a parent. We're strong enough to handle these issues and we don't need to seek out villains. We are the problem - our parenting, our consumption.