Study: Quebec ban on fast-food ads reduced consumption of junk food

An outright ban on junk food advertising aimed at children would be more effective than the current industry-led ban, according to research by University of Illinois economist Kathy Baylis. Credit: Courtesy University of Illinois College of Business

With mounting concerns over childhood obesity and its associated health risks in the U.S., would a ban on junk-food advertising aimed at children be more effective than the current voluntary, industry-led ban? According to published research from a University of Illinois economist, advertising bans do work, but an outright ban covering the entire U.S. media market would be the most effective policy tool for reducing fast-food consumption in children.

Kathy Baylis, a professor of agricultural and consumer economics, studied the on junk-food advertising imposed in the Canadian from 1984 to 1992 and its effect on purchases.

By comparing English-speaking households, who were less likely to be affected by the ban, to French-speaking households, Baylis and co-author Tirtha Dhar, of the University of British Columbia, found evidence that the ban reduced fast-food expenditures by 13 percent per week in French-speaking households, leading to between 11 million and 22 million fewer fast-food meals eaten per year, or 2.2 billion to 4.4 billion fewer calories consumed by children.

"Given the nature of Quebec's media market and demographics, a ban would disproportionately affect French-speaking households, but would not affect similar households in Ontario or without children in either province," Baylis said.

Baylis says the study is applicable to the U.S., although the results wouldn't be quite as robust if bans were instituted state by state.

"What we found is that advertising bans are most effective when children live in an isolated media market, and it's only because they're in an isolated media market that they're getting these effects," she said. "If any state on their own decided to do this, it would be problematic. If the U.S. as a whole decided to do it, our research indicates that such a ban could be successful. The comparison is a strongly regulated system in Quebec to a less strongly regulated system in Ontario, and we still found an effect. If anything, our study is finding a lower-bound of that effect." The big caveat to the study, according to Baylis, is that it's based on data from the 1980s and '90s.

"Obviously, the Internet has exploded since then, and computer games have also risen in popularity," she said. "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. So it would be very hard to enforce an Internet ban, and the only way to tackle it would be how they're doing it in Quebec, which is to prohibit advertising websites for junk food during cartoons, or even on product packaging in stores. But if a 10-year-old is searching for 'Lucky Charms' on the Internet, that would be hard to police on its own."

Baylis says one policy tool that's being revisited in the U.S. is the voluntary agreement that some prominent food companies have signed to limit advertising to kids.

"There's been a lot of concern that this voluntary agreement isn't working," she said. "The FCC has considered stepping in and doing more formal regulation. Our research indicates that this might be the way to go. The folks on the other side of the debate are always saying: 'Don't go down that road. It's a dead-end. Absolute bans don't work and a voluntary approach to self-regulation is better.' Well, that's not true, and this research is more ammunition for the FCC."

Although the advertising lobby would like to deny that advertising to kids works, Baylis notes that about $11 billion per year is spent on advertising aimed at that audience.

"Fast food is one of the most highly advertised product categories, but what's interesting is the amount of discussion around having tighter regulations on advertising directed at children, or when countries look to impose a junk-food advertising ban," Baylis said.

"The advertising lobby is very fond of saying bans don't work, that regulations don't work. There's been a huge policy debate as to whether advertising bans work, and that's why we decided to study the Quebec example, because it was brought up a lot by advertisers as proving their point. And what we discovered is, if you're just averaging overall kids, if you don't control for anything, you're just throwing in enough noise so that it's not statistically significant. When we started controlling for things, we realized that there was something else going on."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Smashin_Z_1885
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 20, 2012
I agree, that fast food is manufactured garbage. However, banning the advertising is Nazism, with similarities to book-burning. In other words, stifling the freedom for the supposed collective good. Which never works. Everyone has the choice Not to eat that junk, regardless of the advertising. For example, they advertise whiskey on tv, but I choose not to drink it. The best bet is to just not buy fast food for your kids; be a parent, not a moronic imbecile. Never get kids started on junk food in the first place. Duh!!
This is like trying to ban any other sort of dangerous activity, it just doesn't work. You've got to leave it up to the people to decide if they want to die from eating poorly, drinking excessively, smoking tobacco, doing extreme sports, driving cars, flying in planes, etc, etc. Government control over everyone's lives is never the right answer, because that always leads to anarchy. Doesn't anyone study real history anymore? ? Sheez, none of this is new. .
mummey_nc
not rated yet Jan 20, 2012
Controlling junk food intake by restricting media outlets? I find this discouraging. It doesn't matter how much is banned, as long as children spend large amounts of time on the internet and watching TV, this inactivity and isolation will only harm them long term. As a kid, I played until I dropped: dodge ball (which I'm sure has been completely outlawed by now), softball, volleyball, tag, jump rope - what has happened to this? It starts with us, if there are children in our circles that don't get out much, we need to offer to help (ice skating, walking, volunteer coach, neighborhood tag parties at night by flashlight, push to keep gym on the schedule in schools, donate money to athletic programs, there are so many things we can do to help now that don't involve a ban on advertising goods).
bbuzz
5 / 5 (13) Jan 20, 2012
The Nazi analogy is so tired, I hate to perpetuate it, but try this one on for size: allowing fast food merchants to advertise unhealthy food that wreaks havoc on your body is comparable to Nazi propoganda.

I'm so sick and tired of people trying to defend commercial advertising as some sort of freedom or inalienable right. Why isn't it my right to not have fast food ads shoved in my face every quarter mile on the highway? Why i

I'll tell you why. Money. We are all slaves to the almighty dollar. And as long as government-subsidized corn is around, fast food chains, fast food chains will continue to sell burgers and french fries for a dolla, and still make a PROFIT. A DOLLAR! That is ridiculously cheap, almost impossible to say no to, which is why most of us don't, unless we are really educated on why it's not good for us. Instead, we're educated by giant billboards with pictures of burgers and fries. Better not take those down, though. That sounds like something Hitler would do.
CHollman82
1 / 5 (14) Jan 20, 2012
bbuzz... you don't own that highway, or those billboards, and you have no right to say what is or is not displayed there.

It's that simple.

There is nothing wrong with fast food, the problem lies in overindulgence and it is NOT the fast food companies problem, it is the individuals problem. This shifting of responsibility away from the individual will only end badly.
bbuzz
not rated yet Jan 21, 2012
Thank you for your thoughts, CHollman, but may I say that I have never said that shifting the responsibility from the individual was my argument, intention, or proposed resolution to the lower class getting fatter, lazier, poorer, sicker, and less happy. My approach is humanistic, as opposed to capitalistic. Call that un-American, but I feel it's my INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY to say that it is utterly masochistic to make unhealthy, over-processed foods attainable at an artificial pace, availability, and price subsidized by the government. Read up on some food psychology, and you will find that the natural instinct of humans is to eat as much as is available to them. Fighting that urge alone is hard enough, without food ads constantly shoved in our faces.
bbuzz
5 / 5 (1) Jan 21, 2012
Might I also ad that, ironically, at lunchtime today my "little sis" in Big Brothers Big Sisters texted me and asked if I could bring her some Taco Bell for lunch. She is an extremely bright 15-year-old girl who reads constantly. She is also obese, and while I've been helping her to slowly change her habits, you wouldn't believe the disconnects and lack of education she has when it comes to food and exercise. Not because she is stupid or lazy, but because she is handed $6 for the day and told to do what she can with it. She skips breakfast then eats 1500 empty calories at lunch. Is it ultimately her responsibility to take care of her body? OF COURSE. But should we be throwing kids into an environment where this behavior is encouraged by ads and reinforced by the availability, convenience, and cheapness? And then tell them we've done our best to create an environment that they can thrive in? And when they find themselves 100 pounds overweight at 15, say, well that was your own fault.
Vendicar_Decarian
3 / 5 (2) Jan 21, 2012
"bbuzz... you don't own that highway, or those billboards, and you have no right to say what is or is not displayed there.
It's that simple."

Sign on a billboard on that highway. "The time has come to slit the throats of CHollman2 and his family, for they are in league with Lucifer."
Callippo
not rated yet Jan 21, 2012
I agree, that fast food is manufactured garbage. However, banning the advertising is Nazism, with similarities to book-burning. In other words, stifling the freedom for the supposed collective good. Which never works.
I do agree in general. Such a result can be produced with incentives, for example with increased taxation of increased health care resulting from unhealthy life style. Are you fat pig and the genetic of hormonal disorder isn't the reason? You'll pay more for your pills. It's way of individualization, not equalization.
aennen
1 / 5 (1) Jan 23, 2012
Gee,

Cant be the parental issue... parents shouldnt have to tell there kids no.... or educate there children to be smart about things in life
that_guy
not rated yet Feb 02, 2012
bbuzz... you don't own that highway, or those billboards, and you have no right to say what is or is not displayed there.

It's that simple.

It's simple that society (Or government) determines what is fair and not fair to do in said society. As a society based on democracy, we do have indirect control, whether or not we own it.

So CHollman, I'd like to point out that your point is absolutely invalid until we can start posting hard core pornographic images on billboards or sell beer to an 8 year old.