"Weakness of the Will:" A Toxic Social Environment
In this post I focus on the affect advertising has on obesity.
In my last post I focused on the question of whether it is acceptable to limit access to foods which contribute to the struggle of obesity. Another important aspect of this issue, however, is the manner in which those foods are marketed. This is especially important when we consider how “junk” foods are advertised to those who are most vulnerable: children. Consider the following statistics from the Prevention Institute. The fast food industry spends more than 5 million dollars per day marketing to children, and 98% of all the food ads that children see are for foods that are high in fat, sugar, and sodium. Of course, the fast food industry wouldn’t continue to spend so much money if it wasn’t working: nearly 40% of children’s diets come from added sugars and unhealthy fats.
If, as discussed in the last post, adults are often susceptible to “weakness of the will,” then children are even more so. One might respond, naturally, isn’t this the parent’s responsibility? Shouldn’t parents be ensuring that their children have a nutritious diet? Certainly they should. But the above statistics suggest that for whatever reason, perhaps their own weakness of will, parental control is not being exerted strongly enough to overcome the influence of advertising. Given the breadth of influence wielded by the advertising industry this should not come as a great surprise. Advertising is everywhere now: television, radio, internet, billboards, product placement in movies, video games, etc. As media critic Sut Jhally has noted, the problem advertisers now face is that our cultural sphere is so flooded with advertising that it is difficult to standout from the noise and clutter. Because of this, Jhally argues that advertising has worked its way into our most cherished and exalted social relations. As discussed in this New York Times article, the connection between marriage and a diamond engagement ring is a relatively recent development brought about by advertisers. It was the stated goal of De Beers, by means of creating an “emotional connotation,” to “create a situation where almost every person pledging marriage feels compelled to acquire a diamond engagement ring.”
Given this, when we examine what causes people to make unhealthy choices, we have to consider the environment those choices are made in. The extent to which we can expect people to be able to direct their will toward what is healthy and beneficial depends, in many ways, upon what sort of cultural influences they are subject to. Jean Kilbourne makes this point in a slightly different context. She argues that advertising creates an unrealistic image of beauty for women that can be causally linked to low self esteem and body image problems. She, and others, also point out how in many cases binge drinking among college students follows a patterned blueprint that has been put in place by the media. From this, she concludes that advertising creates a “toxic social environment.” This is an environment where it is difficult to thrive. Making the right choices can be monumentally difficult when the culture you live promotes unhealthy behavior. If this is the case, then fixing the problem of childhood obesity requires more than encouraging parents to be more active. It requires looking seriously at the sorts of messages that child receive on a daily basis, many of which come in the form of advertisement.