72 per cent want to restrict “junk food” advertising

I’m not among them.

According to the Herald 72 per cent of respondents to a recent survey favour greater government controls on “junk-food” promotions to children. Similar numbers wanted to restrict or ban “unhealthy” food brands sponsoring children’s sport.  A couple of mothers are interviewed in support of such restrictions, citing the dreaded “pester power”.

As I said, I’m not among the 72 per cent. I have three kids, have done all our family shopping for years, usually have at least one child with me when I’m at the supermarket, and two of my children play team sports, where “player of the day” certificates/prizes often come from outfits like Hell Pizza or McDonalds.

But, you know what, we just say no. I don’t encounter very much “pester power” in the supermarket aisles, and when I do I almost always say no. The children watch some television – admittedly not much of it free-to-air – but they know what it is worth pestering me about (“how about making a goat curry, pleeease Dad”) and what it is not. And they aren’t fed on an unremitting diet of lentils and kale either – we have a dessert each evening, consistent with my constant message to them (contrary to the one the schools propagandize then with) that “what matters is a balanced diet and plenty of exercise. Both kids won player of the day certificates on Saturday, but we don’t let them take advantage of the free pizza at Hell Pizza (as it happens, not because it is “junk food” but because we deplore the values that company promotes).  I hope Hell Pizza fails, but I certainly don’t think it should be banned, or should be unable to promote its business.

Just say no. It isn’t really that hard. Start young, but start. Why would we want to contract out responsibility for raising our children to the government? Too much of life is already spent trying to reverse the pernicious effects of propaganda (“evils of capitalism”, for example) from state schools.

12 thoughts on “72 per cent want to restrict “junk food” advertising

  1. Regarding your position on junk food, I am reminded of the remark attributed to Mencken: ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.’

    For example, to the argument against controls on advertising (promotions), the simple fact is that companies advertise to increase sales, end of story. It advertising did not increase sales and add to profits (not a dirty word in my book, I hasten to add), companies wouldn’t do it. And advertising, by its very nature, accentuates the positive, leaving negative externalities to be mopped up by the taxpayer.

    Sure, parents such as you and myself are well able to deflect the demands of our children, but other parents, maybe those working two jobs to make ends meet, are not so capable. Also, for those parents, junk food is generally an easy source of fat and carbs that fill their kids bellies, and are generally cheap.

    There was widespread praise in the teaching profession for the junk food ban in schools introduced by Labour simply because the post-break behavioural problems of many kids were diminished. If nothing else, this was a beneficial impact on a teacher’s working conditions, an often overlooked factor.

    The topic is much more complex than these simple examples, but I believe a more thoughtful, evidence based (like in your economics blogging) approach is superior to your anecdotal approach here, Michael, if I may be so bold.

    Finally, on the matter of school propaganda (the evils of capitalism!), As a member of a family of many teachers, I find this a little hard to believe. Perhaps you could name an example or two?

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  2. Luc

    Let’s not get into a long debate on the substantive point. For me the issue largely comes down to one of freedom and limits of government. There are many ills in our world. I’d rather live in a world where they didn’t exist, but also would rather live in a world where the powers of government were considerably more limited than they are at present.

    On schools, I wasn’t being rhetorical at all. As the most egregious example, the video “The Story of Stuff”, which I could only describe as very loaded anti-capitalist propaganda was recently shown to my 11 year old as part of a school science lesson – not as an example of propaganda or persuasive technique, but as something accurate and balanced.

    Michael

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    • Thanks for your reply, Michael.

      To your first point, about not wanting a long debate, fine, but I do think that debate based on empirical evidence is the best way forward, long or not.

      Be that as it may, in the decile four school my 6 yo attends, I can assure you there is no propagandising on matters of food. In fact, we are aghast at some of the food and drink that the kids get presented with at after school care, and our little one, and one or two of her mates, sometimes just refuse it. But basically, the school is price driven and how can we complain about that? Hayek etc. And current government stinginess, of course.

      I’m most interested in your view that you ‘would rather live in a world where the powers of government were considerably more limited than they are at present.’ I ask, do you have a model country you can point me to? I look around the world and the countries I would most like to live in, aside from my home country, New Zealand, that I would consider, all have a larger, or even much larger, government footprint than we do. Norway vs Afghanistan? Massachusetts vs Mississippi?

      When I asked David Seymour, leader of the Act Party, the same question his reply was, New Zealand, which left me somewhat bemused. So he left his think tank job in Canada to fly back home for an election to save us from…what, exactly?

      Finally, I have watched (most of) “The Story of Stuff.” I’m definitely unimpressed with it, but I wonder if you have actually approached the teacher concerned to confirm that your 11 yo child gave you an accurate account of the context of the presentation?

      For example, my wife teaches English at senior level and the study of propaganda is one of her specialties. She often presents provocative newspaper articles, web links etc (sometimes sourced from yours truly) to generate discussion in class.

      So I tend to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt.

      Looking forward to Q+A tomorrow 🙂

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      • Luc

        I haven’t approached the teacher but (a) my son has reported various questionable lines advanced by the science teacher (not critically, but just reporting what they’d been told), and (b) it wasn’t about a study of propaganda per se (they are doing that right now with a different teacher).

        I’m also not suggesting that all (or even most) teachers are actively propagandising, but there is quite a subtext to a lot of what is presented, mostly probably just reflecting the sort of soft-left views that are largely taken for granted in this part of Wellington. I’,m not sure many of the teachers are able to stand outside their own beliefs and ensure that balanced perspectives are offered (of course, that is hard for all of us, but it is particularly important in teachers).

        Do I have an “ideal country”? No, I don’t. I couldn’t imagine living permanently anywhere other than one of the six Anglo countries (much as I enjoyed my time in a couple of developing country) but all of them are afflicted with the same growth in the regulatory state. Eric Crampton argues, I think, that NZ is less bad/extensive than most. That wouldn’t necessarily surprise me, altho I think the differences between them are likely to be small.

        Unlike David Seymour, I don’t count myself as a libertarian. I’m a Christian social conservative, and there are important areas where I think there should be more regulation rather than less, but I also probably put weight on the importance on the disciplines of church and community, rather than of government. So I’d probably reframe the observation about govts desirably having less power, to preferring govts to keep to areas that were traditionally regulated, rather than reaching extensively into new areas. I also tend to think that values/moral/preferences do (and probably should) end up counting more in most policy choices than empirical evidence. For example, I doubt any evidence of any sort could possibly have me favour legalising abortion (except perhaps in threat to the life of the mother). Regulating “junk food” isn’t in that category of seriousness, but any empirical evidence has to be balanced against a high value I’d place on individual/parental responsibility – and questions of whether sub-cultures (eg church or community groups) might more effective “regulate” behaviours. As I said in my original post, I boycott Hell Pizza, and I’d encourage others who share my belief to do the same.

        This has got rather rambly, but it might help see where I’m coming from.

        Michael

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  3. I suspect a big portion of the attraction maybe simply the desire to outsource the responsibility of the ‘no’ to someone else. It’s easier to say no because there’s a law against it than because I said so. (Just like religious rules are easier to enforce because God says so, not because I just made up that rule.)

    In that sense, a junk food ban (or limits on advertising, etc) is kind of like a pre-commitment mechanism, like a lock on the fridge or throwing your cigarettes away – you know that you want to do it, but you lack the willpower in the moment to actually hold to your plan.

    And one would expect that those with less willpower in the moment are going to be bigger fans, like perhaps, the poor? If I’m worried about paychecks or my heating bill, I’ve got less spare willpower to say no.

    Just a thought.

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  4. I suspect there is something to that. Of course, religions typically treat God as omniscient (as well as omnipotent), a quality not even bureaucrats and lobbyists for more controls would ascribe to governments.

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  5. Thanks for that reply, Michael, and I appreciate your time.

    I’ve been a bit busy lately, hence the delay.

    I remain unconvinced by your framing of teachers, as I find teachers generally quite (too?) conservative on many matters. But then, my experience is with Waikato and Auckland teachers, not Wellingtonians. Maybe the air is a bit different down there?

    And I remain disappointed that Eric and David can’t point to a country that provides a better example of their economic philosophy than NZ, whereas I can point to much more successful, with much less absolute or relative poverty, economies that are polar opposites of their laissez faire fantasies (so 18th century).

    Also, you argue that morality (subjective) considerations should trump empirical (objective) evidence as regards public policy (and, yes, I understand there can be huge philosophical debates around that), but as Paul Krugman says, in relation to your profession, economics is not a morality play.

    Interestingly, I regard the ‘junk food’ issue as much more important than that of abortion. The latter decision should be purely the preserve of the mother, in my view, with reasonable limits, as in NZ, while the former is partly the result of the modern corporate paradigm. And recent experience in the US shows that the way to reduce abortions is to increase access to contraceptives, often opposed by the same people who wish to restrict abortions. Go figure.

    Please keep up your good work in holding the RB to account. To me, it’s bemusing that the woman or man in the street doesn’t understand that low interest rates are a sign of failure, not success. although, on the other hand, with only a 2% inflation target, the governor is entitled to feel let down by the lack of fiscal support as the OCR fast approaches the ZLB, if he was so inclined.

    Cheers.

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    • Thanks Luc

      Yes, I suspect South Wellington is a little different.

      Re the Krugman comment, I think economics is only an analytical tool. People will use it to support their moral judgements, and I don’t have a great problem with that (one way or the other) so long as there is no pretence that “we must do x or y because “economics” says so”. Economics isn’t just history (“structured narrative”), but it isn’t physics either – in fact I think the idea that it is a “science” isn’t particularly helpful. Greece is an interesting example: economics offers no insight on what Greece or the Europeans should do, only on what the implications might be of some choices they might or might not make.

      Interesting to hear how you rank abortion and the junk food issue. I struggle to understand that ranking, but perhaps that is just a failure of imagination on my part.

      Anyway, thanks for the comments.

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      • Funny how we can agree on so much – in fact, you do a really good job of validating my views on monetary policy! – but we are polar opposites on comments like this:

        ‘economics offers no insight on what Greece or the Europeans should do’

        The textbook economics I read is quite clear on what Greece and the EZ should do as regards the current mess: monetary union without fiscal union (and the related transfers) is a slow motion train wreck. Therefore, abandon the project or adopt the US model (preferably without the current weirdness of the GOP!)

        I remember Don Brash (as RBNZ governor) advocating monetary union with Australia long ago and I saw immediately the pitfalls the Greece situation has highlighted. It was just Econ 101,1970, UOA.

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    • I went looking for the evidence on the political preferences of various professions. The data seem quite scant (I’d assumed exit polls might have had it), but this link uses campaign contributions in the US. Among elementary school teachers, six times as many donated to Democrat candidates as Republican.
      http://verdantlabs.com/politics_of_professions/

      Does it translate to NZ? Perhaps not, altho the stance of educational unions would tend to suggest stronger support for Labour (and the Greens) than for National.

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    • Luc

      Just quickly on Greece, I don’t think we are disagreeing at all, except in the sense that I’d regard economics as a diagnostic tool offering insight on the implications of the choice to be in the euro or leave it, but there is a wider range of considerations that Greek voters might want to consider in deciding to stay or go.

      I’m pretty sure that, as Governor, Don Brash didn’t advocate currency union with Aus. From memory, he may have prompted discussion on the pros and cons of common currency, whether with Aus or US.

      Michael

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