Parents, let us safely assume, have been always pretty much the same – concerned about children’s safety, learning, nutrition, clothing. So why the childhood obesity epidemic, and why suddenly, in 2012, in the view of shock jocks and food lobbyists, have parents stopped caring about, being responsible for, their children’s well-being, to the extent that they are to blame for this obesity?
What nonsense. Whenever you hear the words “Nanny State” and “personal responsibility” reach for a metaphorical gun. Here is the argument – parents have suddenly stopped being responsible for what their children eat, and their health status (not sure why, but there it is, inarguable fact), and must be bullied into being so again by shock jocks. Nothing else has changed in society so it is obviously the fault of parents, who must pull themselves together and once more accept their responsibility. Any suggestion of any other action would be “Nanny Statism” and none of us want that, do we (said somewhat menacingly).
But wait, what is wrong with this picture? Society has extensively changed in the way that food is produced, packaged and promoted. When I was growing up in the 1950s there were no fast food outlets. I’ll say that again, NO fast food outlets. There were no supermarkets. There was very little processed or packaged food. People bought, or grew, fresh ingredients, and made stuff. Freshly made bread was delivered to the door each morning, as was freshly made milk.
Nor was there much advertising of food, though there was, of course, of cigarettes, what would have been the purpose? As a consequence, none of us copied each other in eating certain foods, nor nagged parents to get them. Food was, well, just food, and you ate it, of necessity, just like you drank water and breathed. Conversely, glamorous cigarettes, promising a world of maturity and sophistication, were massively taken up by young teens, imitating each other, and the cool cats in adverts and movies.
But about this time, as my teenage years succeeded each other, a change came over the food industry. Corporations realised that “supermarkets” could make far more money than the old corner grocery store (which had also, incidentally, because taken for granted as customer service, delivered to the door, in fact delivered to the kitchen table, groceries too heavy for customers like my grandmother to carry home). The supermarket would also send out of business the greengrocer, and end for ever home deliveries of fresh milk and bread.
At the same time, to make the supermarket work profitably, much of what was sold had to be processed, preserved, packaged, to make it last, to make it appealing, to make it a little addictive. Meanwhile, fast food makers of various kinds were realising that if they created a market for their product by making, for example, a certain kind of hamburger as appealing as, say, Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, huge profits were assured. Fast food, which also, uncoincidentally, required to be processed, preserved, packaged, and made addictive by the addition of salts and fats.
Convince people to buy food that was convenient for the corporations but bad for them, how could you do that?
Well, cometh the hour, cometh the adman. As early as 1957 Vance Packard (as was Frederic Wakeman in fictional form in “The Hucksters” in 1946) was detailing the sophistication with which advertising was already operating, a world away from the simple informative ads before WW2. The psychology of human beings and how they could be made to respond, unwittingly, to colours, sounds, smells, shapes, shop placement, were all carefully studied and applied. Even subliminal advertising was tested.
In the last half century the sophistication of the psychological analysis in advertising. Whole teams of psychologists examine every detail of human perception and how to manipulate it. Every age and socio-economic group in society is individually targeted with finely tailored advertising. Down to children, where there is both big money, and future customers.
So everything is thrown at children, once and future customers. Every trick learnt over 50 years is beamed at them in advertising blitzkrieg. Not just colours, shapes, smells, sounds, shop placement (though the latter is particularly a science for children) but all sorts of extras.
Most important is to develop the most powerful force in children’s lives – peer pressure. Make something so apparently desirable that its ownership by one child will make it an imperative for others to own and you have a licence to print money. Add in the linkage of products to popular films or games, and make gifts available with, say, hamburgers, and you have a bigger licence. Ensure products made attractive by such methods are placed at children’s eye level in supermarkets and you multiply your sales even further.
So, half a century of development, tens of thousands of psychological researchers, designers, film makers, all aimed at making children both want and demand things from their parents which they must have or their lives will be ruined.
And yet, in the face of this highly sophisticated industry worth billions of dollars, individual parents are supposed to be able to resist the enormous pressures. Be “responsible”. No difference between parents caring for their children 50 years ago and now, but the big difference is the food and advertising industries and their effects.
But after all, reining in this advertising onslaught on children, and its disastrous effects on their weight and health, would be “Nanny State” right?