Honey, We Brainwashed the Kids

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Last week the Nanny State took one to the chest and upheld 18-year-old laws which enforce the viewing of junk food commercials by kids. As we are all too aware, fast food corporations spend billions each year on sophisticated marketing tools which teach young children amazing mind control techniques. Equipped with this expertise, children are apparently able to make parents forget the value of a healthy meal in lieu of fat, sugar and plastic figurines.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) decided there was insufficient evidence linking junk food advertising to childhood obesity. Let’s avoid having to endure another Rudd "tough on junk food" media conference and the inevitable announcement of another inquiry. How’s this for an announcement on childhood obesity: the reason kids get fat is because they eat too much crap food and do not get enough exercise. Can’t we just drop the whole "I’m big boned/It’s my genes" palaver and face reality?

If the Nanny State had its way, junk food advertising would be banned from 6:00am until 9:00pm. This will potentially avert the attention of our "vulnerable" youth (and that’s the term Nanny State likes to use) during their optimum two to three hours of TV viewing per day. Unfortunately the latest Pixar merchandise tie-in with the Golden Arches or Krusty Fried Chicken will kick in regardless, allowing the fast food machine to swoop on our innocents — yet again. So do we ban kids merchandise, kids films or just toy shops that don’t sell felt?

These advertising campaigns don’t tell kids to eat junk food many times per week. Kids don’t nominate junk food as the sole beneficiary of their pocket money. Kids eat junk food because Mumsy picks Little Johnny up from school and says, "Well done, you didn’t stab anyone today, you can have half a dozen donuts and a strawberry milkshake on the way home". Junk food isn’t the problem here, it is television and parents.

The current centrepiece of parental angst is the Parents Jury. This is where parent power goes online to say "Stay away from our kids!" to the multi-nationals. Last week 3400 parents, grandparents and guardians called for a complete ban on junk food ads on television from dawn until 9:00pm. The Parents Jury is an initiative of a number of health lobby groups such as Diabetes Australia and the Cancer Council. They promote physical activity and initiatives to increase access to resources which encourage participation in sports.

As worthwhile as this all is, the war against junk food seems like a knee-jerk reaction from parents under fire. Last year’s Pester Power Award went to the McDonald’s Happy Meal/Spongebob Squarepants Toy Promotion. I can only imagine how unbearably annoying this promotion would be. The entire Spongebob franchise is an endless parade of yellow animated vomit. That aside, the Parents Jury would be more effective with a national campaign to put bricks through televisions.

While parents spend so much time telling kids what they can or cannot do, why are parents so unable to negotiate with kids? Parents complain that their kids insist on eating junk food. If your child told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?

The danger of the Nanny State is the misguided belief that children can be wrapped in cotton wool, covered in a non-artificial plastic dome, and allowed to run freely without being exposed to outside influences or having to make any decisions for themselves. It is vital that children learn how to live in a world of temptations, complete with lollies, soft drink and chips.

There are important developmental opportunities for children to navigate and learn. Parents use junk food as a reward or passive disciplinary tool. If it isn’t junk food, it’s an Xbox or Miley Cyrus or a Bindi Irwin toy. Would parents like their children to avoid these influences altogether until say, they’re 18? Or perhaps after uni when they turn 21? (This latter is, of course, the aspiration of all right-thinking parents.) Soon enough, it won’t be junk food they are making choices about but friends, drugs and sleeping with that kid you can’t stand.

Unfortunately junk food isn’t going away — in fact it’s growing with an exciting new range of healthy choices. Banning junk food ads won’t end junk food and is highly unlikely to quell children’s desire for it (and the film merchandise tie ins).

It’s about time parents empowered themselves to explain the value of healthy food and follow up with actually providing it. Children make choices every day and they need to learn from bad choices.

The Nanny State did have one victory last week, with the national ban on the billboard advertisement stating: "Want Longer Sex?". In Australia, the Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) acted on community concern about the sexualisation of children which "had lowered public tolerance of advertising relating to sex".

In New Zealand, the wording, large type-size, bold colours and overall size of the same ad was also ruled likely to cause widespread offence.

It’s amazing that parents seem to accept kids watching two to three hours of television each day — as long as there are no junk food ads — while flipping out over the word SEX on the freeway. I’m more concerned about the prevalence (and relevance) of Jennifer Hawkins. Surely further information such as, "That’s an advertisement for miserable men with health problems" would suffice? If not, how about "Don’t worry sweetie, that’s just a message for Daddy".

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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