If you look at the anti-obesity policy recommendations of almost every leading public health organization, the list invariably includes a ban on junk food advertising directed at children. That’s because we know these ads stimulate kids’ demand for unhealthy products, which in turn encourages parents to buy them. (If this “pester power” weren’t so effective, you can be sure the food and beverage industries wouldn’t spend almost $2 billion a year to stoke it.)
Legislative attempts to curb these ads here in the U.S. have failed miserably, thanks to industry lobbying, and as I’ve reported frequently on this blog and elsewhere, the industry’s promised self-regulation has been predictably toothless.
Because the status quo is unlikely to change, it’s all the more important that we teach our kids to see these ads for exactly what they are: a cynical attempt to drive profits at the expense of their health. Imparting that lesson to little kids was the goal of my own homemade rhyming video released back in 2013 – remember Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory? – and now there’s a great new book to help teach junk food ad literacy to older children: Eat this! How Fast Food Marketing Gets You to Buy Junk (and how to fight back) by Andrea Curtis.
Here’s my recent interview with Curtis, followed by instructions on how to enter to win your own free copy of the book:
TLT: Can you tell us what prompted you to write Eat This!?
AC: I’ve been interested in food issues for a long time—as a parent of two boys, an active cook and veggie gardener, and in my writing life. But it was when my first son was in kindergarten that I realized the power of fast food and beverage marketing, even with very young children. The teacher asked them to do a pre-literacy project focused on the brands they knew by sight. The children couldn’t read but knew all the fast food and drink logos, could sing their jingles and recognized their sales pitches. It blew me away. Later, writing What’s for Lunch?, my first kids’ book about food, I began to realize how pervasive the marketing is—from teachers flipping burgers to raise money for their schools, to fast food Snapchat filters, where teens are turned into brand ambassadors, to free mobile games featuring cereal spokescharacters and so much more.
TLT: What’s the intended age group for the book – and why?
AC: The book is geared at kids 9-12. Research shows that children under the age of 8 can’t actually distinguish between strict information and marketing. By the time they’re 9, most can tell the difference but they’re not very critical. Even savvy teenagers can be readily manipulated by marketing that plays with their emotions. I’m hoping to hit the sweet spot with the kids who are starting to ask questions about how these foods and beverages are being sold to them and offer them some tools to decode the messages. But the book is highly visual so I hope younger kids will be interested as well.
TLT: What impact do you hope Eat This! will have on young readers?
AC: We know that all over the world, we are in the throes of a serious diet-related health crisis. In the U.S.A., 1 in 5 kids have obesity. Diabetes is skyrocketing everywhere. There are lots of factors involved but the unhealthy food environment is a key part of it. I believe strongly that kids can and should be active participants in pushing for the political and social changes that affect them. I hope that young readers will see the strategies and techniques marketers are using on them and, like Hannah Robertson (an amazing kid activist in the book who spoke out at a McDonald’s shareholder’s meeting), say they’re not willing to be tricked any longer. I hope they’ll point out to their friends, parents and teachers the new strategies and platforms where unhealthy food and drink is being pitched and call out the companies that are pushing stuff on them that is making us all sick. I also hope that they will begin to see that none of us can stop with individual actions when it comes to real societal change. In order to do the necessary work of transforming the toxic food environment for the future, we all need to come together and insist that our governments prioritize our health over corporate profit. A tremendous step in the right direction would be to restrict marketing of fast food and sugary drinks to young people.
TLT: There are some developments in Canada right now relating to youth-directed junk food advertising – can you briefly summarize for TLT readers what’s going on?
AC: The Child Health Protection Act is a bill to ban the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children. It has already passed through several layers of debate in our Parliament and is currently “in committee”—a discussion period. The bill will be studied and amendments will be added before a final debate and vote. Right now the bill restricts marketing to children under 17 but it’s going to be reduced to under 13 years old. There will also be some exemptions, such as sports sponsorship for kids’ baseball and hockey teams. I’m cautiously optimistic that the bill will pass, though I’ve seen that lobbyists are increasingly putting pressure on our elected politicians. I’m concerned that it will be diluted more and more and end up having less impact than it should. We have evidence in Canada that such bans can work incredibly well. The province of Quebec has had legislation restricting marketing to kids since 1980. There are lower rates of obesity and overweight there, kids eat less junk and more fruit and vegetables.
TLT: Besides sharing your book, what can parents do to help increase their children’s media literacy?
AC: Advertising has become a huge part of our culture. Advertisers are smart and create fun, sharable content. But the good news for parents is that, as a result, your kids will probably want to talk about it. Ask them what they see out in the world—on their way to school, on their phones, on the web, and talk to them about what it all means. What’s being sold? How is it being sold? Are they being manipulated? How? Is the food or drink what the marketers say it is? In Eat this! I suggest making it into a game. I’m convinced that there are going to be a lot of kids who—when they start breaking it down and identifying the messages and intention—will get angry that they’re being played as dupes, convinced to buy stuff that’s actually harmful to them and their peers.
TLT: Is there anything else you’d like to add for Lunch Tray readers?
AC: I’ve been getting great feedback from teachers who are using Eat this! in their classrooms for discussions about media and food literacy. I just heard from a someone who sent kids home for the weekend with the assignment to find at least 10 examples of the techniques and strategies outlined in the book. The kids were excited about the project, especially because the teacher told them anyone who came in with more than 20 examples would get a Timbit treat (mini-doughnuts popular here in Canada!). She figured they’d get a laugh out of that but using fast food as a bribe or prize, even in schools, is so common—even expected—none of the kids who’d just spent time discussing such things, even questioned it. I can’t wait to hear what happens when they have a chance to unpack that one.
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Many thanks to Andrea Curtis for the interview, and for allowing me to give away a free copy of Eat This! To enter the drawing, just leave a comment below by Friday, February 23, 2018 at 6pm CST. You can tell me why you’d like to win or you can just say hi. I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing. I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too. This offer is open to U.S. residents only.
Good luck! 🙂
[Blogger disclosure: As with most of my book reviews and author interviews, I received a free copy of this book for my perusal.]
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