WEDNESDAY, Nov. 26, 2008 (Health.com) — Ronald McDonald first appeared in a television ad in 1963—played by none other than the Today show’s Willard Scott—and 45 years later the burger-slinging clown has reached near-universal recognition. The book Fast Food Nation notes that 96% of American schoolchildren surveyed recognized Ronald McDonald, second only to Santa Claus.
That’s good for corporate branding, but not for childhood obesity, according to a new study published this month in the Journal of Law and Economics.
The authors, from the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluded that a ban on fast-food advertisements (for all such restaurants, not just McDonald’s) would significantly reduce the number of overweight children in the United States.
Their calculations, conducted with funding from the National Institutes of Health, indicate that a ban during children’s programming would cut down on the number of overweight children ages 3–11 by 18%, while lowering the number of overweight adolescents ages 12–18 by 14%.
The study is based on the television-watching habits of some 13,000 children enrolled in the 1979 Child–Young Adult National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and the 1997 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which looked at the number of hours of fast-food advertising messages seen by children every week.
Shin-Yi Chou, assistant professor of economics at Lehigh University and a study coauthor, says that the findings weren’t a surprise. Many experts believe that childhood obesity is linked to television advertising, but there's been little concrete evidence.
There are outright bans on fast-food ads in countries such as Sweden and Norway, but Chou says the study's goal was not to change U.S. laws. Such a ban is impractical in the United States for a number of reasons—free speech being one. But the study also suggests that eliminating businesses' tax deductions related to advertising could reduce childhood obesity by 5% to 7%.
“We aren’t saying the government should eliminate ads, but we do want to stress that it impacts children’s health,” says Chou. "Kids are affected by advertising.”
Other factors that contribute to childhood obesity, such as family economics, lack of daily exercise, and time spent in passive activities, were not taken into account in the study, nor were the recent changes made as part of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative program.
The program, which is sponsored by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB), was set up after a 2006 Institute of Medicine report found compelling evidence linking food advertising on television and increases in childhood obesity.
Both McDonald’s and Burger King have retooled advertising aimed at children under 12, and are now promoting healthier choices.
“Consumers are demanding better-for-you products, but this study doesn’t consider the content of advertising,” says Elaine Kolish, the BBB Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative director. “We’d all like kids to see ads for healthier foods.”
The important message of the new report is that it's part of a larger picture, according to Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, the director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Lab and a professor of nutrition science and policy at Tufts University.
“Industry and health care need to work together to reduce the overconsumption of calories that increase a child's body weight,” says Lichtenstein.
It remains to be seen if the study will lead to further restrictions on fast-food advertising during children’s programming, but Chou has one simple way for parents to limit exposure to fast-food pitches: DVRs and TiVos.
“We carefully select programs and skip all the advertising,” she says. “Once kids get to a McDonald’s, do they really want to eat a salad?”