Home / English / Obesity and Malnutrition-Role and Impact of advertisements on Children and Youth: Some reflections

Obesity and Malnutrition-Role and Impact of advertisements on Children and Youth: Some reflections

Jaishri Jethwaney |

Media watching is an integral part of children and youth from which they get a growing sense of themselves, the world and how they should interact with others.

In an average household that has access to television children as young as two-three years are hooked on to TV and recognize animation characters, products and brands.

It is ironical that eating sufficient is not necessarily eating balanced diet. Even the obese can be malnourished /undernourished.
The youth that is hooked on to fast food need to be sensitized that malnutrition is as much a problem with the rich as with the poor.

To define Malnutrition, it is a broad term which refers to both under-nutrition (sub-nutrition) and over-nutrition. Individuals are malnourished, or suffer from under-nutrition if their diet does not provide them with adequate calories and protein for maintenance and growth, or they cannot fully utilize the food they eat due to illness. People are also malnourished, or suffer from over-nutrition if they consume too many calories.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Malnutrition is the gravest single threat to global public health.

Nutrition Dilemma: What is the Impact of Junk Food?
The general perception is that junk food causes malnutrition because it has a low nutritional value or junk food causes overweight and obesity because it is high in fat or calories, but the problem is more complex.

Thanks to globalization, more and more people especially youngsters have access to junk food. They are drifting away from traditional healthy options like vegetables, fruits and pulses, which are rich sources of protein and fiber.

Some startling facts!

According to a BBC documentary on obesity among Indians, obesity crisis swells among India’s middle class youth as children choose Western fast food over traditional cuisine. Obesity is spreading across India as a result of Western food invasion. Doctors are commonly fitting gastric bands on children as young as 13. According to market estimates, Indian fast food market which is worth £7bn is expected to double by 2016. As a result of the obesity epidemic , the country also has diabetes epidemic. India already has largest diabetes population in the world with over 50m sufferers. Medical professionals expect it to reach 100m soon. Indians are more genetically predisposed to developing diabetes.

The role of media
Is media the real culprit inducing, enticing and persuading people in general and children and youth in particular with life style marketing and promotional strategies surrounding junk food?
Let’s look at it

Some empirical studies in the West suggest that mere one or two exposures of food products in television ads can induce young children to demand that brand/product. If that be so then healthy foods can also promoted to attract children’s attention and demand.

The marketing strategy of many food brands is geared towards children as they are the most gullible and have the capacity as surrogate salespersons and the power of ‘emotional blackmail’ with their parents. Many children get enough pocket money to indulge in the snacks/food of their choice.

The food ads are so alluring and mouth watering and to top it all, they are branded that they carry a certain ‘oomph’ factor attached to them that make them so attractive. Billions of rupees are spent on promotion activities surrounding food brands and their ad campaigns.

In an interview to a newspaper, Ajay Kaul, CEO, Jubilant FoodWorks Ltd, which is a master franchisee of brands such as Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin Donuts, says, “You have to create a lot of stimuli for consumers, whether through online and SMS. We have been enticing consumers and will continue to put money in branding campaigns.”

The liberalization of the Indian economy in the 1990s has opened the whole arena of fast food chains in India, just to name a few McDonalds, Pizza hut, Dominos, KFC, Sub-way and the recently launched Burger King among others. The only well-known Indian fast food chain Nirulas has long been relegated to the background (This has also been taken over by an Asian business house, but not doing so well) . Besides the outdoor eating options, fast foods in the shape of packaged alternatives are now available aplenty.
Maggie, Knorr, McCan, Top Ramen, pasta, ready-to eat pizzas are readily available in retail stores that have been initiated by big business houses like the Reliance, future Group and what you have. With a ban on Maggi for a few month on the allegation of higher led content, the brand is back with a huge campaign telling people, ‘Maggi was safe and is safe’, thereby subtly making a point in its favor that it was victimized.

The fast pace of life, nuclear families, working parents have only added to the demand for ready to eat junk foods, when children are alone at home.
The free delivery by the big brands like pizza Hut, dominos, McDonalds, KFC only adds to easy accessibility of these products . The weekly offers of ‘buy one get another free’ and value meals add up to the greed. The traditional Indian savories like samosa, bread pakoras, vada pao and bhel and besan chillas have almost become alien to younger generation. According to a Crisil Study, The Indian QSR (Quick serve restaurants) with a market of Rs 3500 crores in 2013 are likely to double their business to Rs. 7000 crores by 2016. In value terms, the research reflects that pizzas, burgers and sandwiches still account for 83 per cent of the domestic QSR market. On the other hand the Indian food can’t really be put in an assembly line production model, which the foreign cuisine adapt and is more amenable to the cold storage format and a centralized kitchen.
The comfortable sitting environment, the promise of hygienic food supported in great measure of higher disposable income has led an average middle class family to visit fast food joints many a time in a month.
Aerated drinks have a huge market among children and youth. It is small blessing in India that there are no free refills as in the US and Europe!

Does TV viewing lead to obesity?
A study in the west suggested that if “children and youth are to develop eating habits that help them avoid early onset diet-related chronic diseases, they have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods, and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to them.”

Empirical multi-disciplinary research is required in India to understand the connection between growing obesity among Indian children and their exposure to fast food and media stimuli. Growth in sales of high-fat fast-foods has also expanded the population’s waistlines. India’s National Diabetes, Obesity & Cholesterol Foundation based in New Delhi says on its website that with the improved economic situation in the country, obesity rates are showing a marked upward trend in adults.

A study of school children conducted by the foundation in Delhi in 2011, found that between a quarter and a third of them were eating fast food, such as pizzas and burgers, more than two to three times a week.

Inclen, a global NGO is engaged in a seminal longitudinal multi-disciplinary study spanning five years to gauge the connect between child obesity and various factors including individual genetics, neuro –cognitive predisposition, – psychology, family environment, social environment , besides availability of junk food and marketing and advertising stimuli is underway to find out the connect and gather insights. For this a sample of 306 children has been randomly chosen in district Palwal of Haryana, India who would be observed over a period on the above mentioned parameters. As society system level, the focus of research is on the agriculture and agri-food systems that determine the balance of health-promoting/impeding opportunities and constraints with following exposure Variables, Agriculture; Food system & supply choices;Marketing including influences of local communities; Media & Communication; Policy changes and Ngo’s & other stakeholders.

Where does it take us from here?
If we think that these brand one day will feel guilty and stop running their outlets , it is farther from the truth. A continuous research and advocacy in goading the food giants in supplying healthy food could be the way out. The good news is that buckled under law suits and pressure from CSOs and NGOs, many of these multi-nationals are tweaking their products to include some protein some roughage and fiber in their foods. Some have pledged not to use children in ads or target children for their products. The Maggi noodles TV commercials now don’t feature children. Before the controversy, one of the ads featured two wrinkled old men, with hearing aids, flying kites on a roof as they argue in trembling voices about the flavour of instant noodles. The commercial came as a surprise to viewers used to watching kids shout “Mummy bhookh lagi” (Mom I’m hungry), with the mother replying, two minutes. On the face of it, it looked as if adults/senior people were being targeted, but a closer scrutiny tells another tale. Similarly the magi come back ads also have adults and teenagers . The print ad had the caption “ was hungry for news” as a banner headline on the front page. Below the page the eight column ad had a formally dressed adult downing the

And Nestle’s Maggi is not alone. In the food and beverages sector, top companies such as Pepsico (Frito-Lay ), Kraft Foods (Cadbury) and Hindustan Unilever (Kwality Walls) too are now using adults for TV commercials . So, where have all the kids vanished and why? The answer to that query lies in a European Union Pledge undertaken by 11 food industry giants such as Nestle, Unilever, Coca Cola, Pepsico way back in 2007. Under that oath, the MNCs agreed not to use children under the age of 12 in advertisements shown in the European Union countries.

To quote PepsiCo India spokesperson, “Post these discussions, we joined a group of global food and beverage manufacturers to adopt a worldwide voluntary commitment to advertise to children under 12 only products that meet specific nutrition criteria”.

Hard core advocacy with media and celebrities is required to take a call on this very important issue. Bollywood and sports celebrities who cast a spell on the young generation can be ‘morally pressurized’ to not to endorse brands that cause obesity. In fact some actors came under public scrutiny after the Maggi noodles fiasco.
In summation, banning the food is neither possible nor will it serve any purpose, but educating children on health and introducing them to traditional home made food through innovative ways of presenting homemade food, providing healthy alternatives and putting moral pressure on fast food chains to innovate healthy food and last but not the least by sensitizing media to write about the issue more wholeheartedly could possibly bring some relief. © JJethwaney
Dr. Jaishri Jethwaney, Professor & Program Director (Advertising & PR),Indian Institute of Mass Communication, New Delhi Contact: jjethwaney@gmail.com www.iimc.gov.in



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