South-Western - Management  
The Kids Question, (childhood obesity and the ethics of advertising)
Topic Childhood obesity and the ethics of advertising
Key Words Advertising, ethics, social responsibility, utilitarianism
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News Story

Martin Glenn, President of PepsiCo in the U.K. argues that most companies communicate responsibly to parents or their children, because not doing so would violate the trust consumers place in their brand. He reminds us that there are very stringent advertising codes of practice in place, whose rules and general spirit companies try to adhere to. Furthermore, research indicates that advertising is far less influencing children's habits than, for instance, family and friends.

Advertising, he says, can only encourage trial, it cannot make consumers do things they don't want to do. Finally, PepsiCo provides nutritional information and healthy lunchbox suggestions that allows consumers to make an informed choice about the products they eat. The real causes of obesity: Too much energy consumed and not enough being expended through activity and exercise.

Craig Smith, Associate Professor of marketing and ethics at London Business School reminds us to consider not only the effects of food advertising on children's diets, but also its effect on better-quality children's programming (thanks to increased ad revenues), the sensory pleasures of food, the entertainment value of ads, the increase in health care cost, the revenue for food producers and television networks, and the cost of government intervention. Because such analysis is both complex and open to interpretations, Craig Smith suggests basing one's assessment on three questions:  1. Are consumers capable of making an informed choice or are they vulnerable?  2. Is the information provided available and adequate?  3. Are consumers free to choose? Smith argues that because children lack the ability to make informed decisions, marketing to them is ethically suspect and, unless company voluntary stop doing so, such activities will need to be regulated.

Debra Shipley, a member of the British House of Commons, introduced a bill last year to ban the advertising of food and drink high in sugar, salt and fat from children's TV. Though unsuccessful, she contends that evidence that childhood obesity is a serious problem is overwhelming and that public support for a general ban has become louder and more determined. At age six, one in five children in England are overweight, and a further one in ten is obese. By age 15, these figures have risen to 31% and 17% respectively. The Chief Medical Officer for England warned that today's youngsters may be the first generation that will live shorter lives than their parents. Debra Shipley concedes that advertising is not the only cause, but argues that research has clearly determined it to be a significant contributory factor. Protecting public health, she argues, should override the desire for commercial freedom.


How can commerce and responsibility be balanced when marketing food to children?


Should the government intervene in this issue?

Source Martin Glenn, Craig Smith, Debra Shipley, (Panel Discussion), "The Kids Question, (childhood obesity and the ethics of advertising)," Marketing, Feb 12, 2004.
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