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Should Christmas treat advertising for our children be put on a diet?

Agnes Nairn is a Professor in Marketing at the School of Economics, Finance and Management. In this blog she talks about how advertising affects us and our children, especially during the festive season

11 December 2017

It’s that time of the year again – a time of lots of feasting, and not a lot of fasting, for most of us. On Christmas Day, the average person will consume nearly 6000 calories – that’s three times the daily average. So, should advertising for food at Christmas be toned down? Especially when it comes to our children?

It's clear that there's an obesity crisis. There are currently 42 million children under the age of five, and between 155 million and 200 million school-age children who are obese or overweight. The figure for adults is due to reach 2.7 billion worldwide by 2025.

It's also clear that advertising plays a role. It has been quantified as two per cent of the influence on dietary intake, according to research commissioned by OFCOM. That doesn't sound like a lot, but over a lifetime, and over a lot of people, that can have a big effect.

In fact, in 2006, as a result of these and other research findings, advertising food and drink high in salt, sugar and fat was banned in and around TV programmes of particular appeal to children.

I’m not in favour of toning down food advertising at Christmas, however. For a start, the traditional Christmas roast with meat and certainly more than two veg is quite good for you – even if Christmas pud is pretty hefty on the calories.

But more importantly, Christmas is a time when food is the centrepiece for getting together as a family. My research for UNICEF showed very clearly on that what children want more than anything, is to spend more time with their family – and this is what Christmas is about.

So, the psychological benefits of sitting down with mums and dads, and grannies and grandpas and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters is likely to outweigh the calorific damage of one day of overindulgence.

If I were to fire warning shots about advertising at Christmas, I'd go for how it fuels materialism instead. It's not good for our well-being. A fairly substantial body of research agrees that those who feel bad about themselves and who are exposed to advertising are much more likely to rush to purchase all the toys, gadgets and electronics that we are urged to buy. They think it will make them feel better.

But of course it doesn't - it just creates a vicious circle of watching, wanting and poor well-being. It can also cause tension in families as kids ask for things they can't have and parents feel endlessly guilty about buying stuff and about not buying stuff. No one really wins, apart from the retailers.

It's quite hard to block ads out too, because the really subtle ones that you don't even realise are advertising - if we don't notice that its advertising we can't put up a cognitive counter argument. Digital ads are particularly powerful when embedded in content or in games that kids don't realise are adverts.

So be aware of advertising, don’t go into debt to try to make your kids happy with "stuff" (it won’t work) and enjoy your Christmas dinner as a way of reconnecting with kith and kin ... until the arguments over the remote begin.

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