The relentless barrage of junk food advertisements Americans are subjected to is nothing short of astounding. In 2009, a whopping 86 percent of U.S. television ads were for fatty, sugary or salty products. Even worse, that figure was actually down from a year earlier, when an overwhelming 94 percent of ads were siren calls for obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
For beleaguered parents hoping for a day without any McAdvertising, take heart: from 1984 to 1992, the Canadian province of Quebec did just that. According to Kathy Baylis, an economist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, during the province's eight-year ban on fast-food advertisements, fast-food expenditures plummeted by 13 percent per week in French-speaking households.
The bottom line? Between 11 million and 22 million fewer fast-food meals were eaten per year, translating into 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion fewer calories consumed by Quebec's children.
While the news may not be shocking to savvy parents, Baylis hopes that the study raises public awareness about the passive health benefits that can be gleaned just by eliminating a child's access to televised temptation. At the same time, she warns that this kind of ban might not work in the current media climate, where corporations are using the Internet to find unprecedented ways to access young, malleable minds.
"Obviously, the Internet has exploded since then, and computer games have also risen in popularity," said Baylis in a statement. "So we don't know how well a television ban would work when children are spending an increasing amount of time online rather than watching TV."
Banning advertising of health-damaging substances is nothing new. The tobacco industry has for decades been fighting a steadily closing window for ads in the wake of mounting evidence of its effect on children and adolescents. In one of the most famous studies, reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association in 1991, 6-year-olds were able to match Camel's iconic Camel Joe cartoon with a pack of cigarettes more often than they were able to match Mickey Mouse with the Disney logo. Most recently, the passage of the FDA Tobacco Regulation Bill in 2009 restricted tobacco advertising within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds, required that warning labels cover 50 percent of the front and back of cigarette packs, and called for an end to all sweetened and spice-flavored cigarettes.