Taking Responsibility

Fat chance advertising to blame

Something puzzles me. Advertising has assumed a power that leaves parents unable to control their children. If you want proof, spend a little time walking around your locality. The passing parade of obese kids and teenagers is down to advertising.

Kids just have to see an ad for anything that contains fat or sugar and they become unstoppable. Parents want non-fat kids but just cannot fight that darned advertising.

This school of thought has become so dominant in some circles that questioning it leaves you more open to attack than fish in a bucket under fire.

One of the scariest people I ever met was an anti-advertising-to-kids activist whose views as to what should and should not be allowed in society made Attila the Hun look like Mary Poppins. Do you remember when you were small being told by your minders not to take an offer of sweets from strangers in cars?

In the UK, kids are being taught that people who work in the confectionery business are just as evil. It is now more urgent to teach kids about the confectionery bogeyman than it is to teach them respect for themselves and for others.

In the US, they want to ban certain ads while adults continue to serve their kids huge portions of fat laden food and with doggie bags to takeaway. Have you ever visited the theme parks in Florida where overweight adults commute in electric chairs?

We eat more and exercise less than we did before. There seems to be some primeval thing in us that says we cannot stop eating and cannot be bothered exercising. They say that if you leave out a week's supply of food for a cat it will nibble at it all week. Do the same for a dog and he will gorge himself half to death day one and starve for the rest of the week. So we are as stupid as dogs and more stupid than cats. Yet evolution put us at the top of the chain – not, it appears, the food chain.

Apart from kids who have real medical and/or psychological issues that make them obese, fat kids just eat too much. I am prepared to skip the no exercise argument and cut out all non-essential physical activity. If they want to sit around all day, let them.

Parents control the food intake of kids. I know they can buy a jumbo breakfast roll in the local store. But if they understand the longer term consequences of eating stodge, they might buy something equally tasty but far less damaging.

It all comes back to the concept of consequence. In the very early days of a child's education you learn that they have to understand that their actions have consequences. Kids who do not pick up on this concept often become hard to handle.

They grow up not realising that bad things happen because of the way they behave. They blame everyone and everything for the fact that they feel miserable. They feel out of control and confused and often caught in a vicious cycle.

Learning about consequences is important in the area of obesity because we know there is a clear link between what you eat and your weight. When organisations set up to make a point produce research to prove that, our radars should start pinging loudly.

Of course, kids learn about enticing products through ads. That is how we all learn about enticing products. There is a big leap from here to saying ads are a cause of obesity. Go back to your logic studies and you will find that is a logical fallacy.

If you follow the controlletariat view, you must agree that holiday companies are responsible for sunburn because they advertise trips to sunny places. Likewise, marketers of iPods could be blamed for teenagers having hearing problems.

To suggest ads make kids fat because it allows parents and guardians to avoid seeking the help they need to become more useful to their children is farcical. What we have here is not a crisis of advertising but a crisis in parenting that advertising highlights. You can use ads to teach your child the meaning of “no”. Or you can just blame it for the fact that you cannot be bothered to apply positive parenting skills. Obesity is not an end in itself. It is another indicator people are losing a positive sense of self.

We have a tendency to work to an American model of self-esteem that encourages immediate gratification and has no positive external references. Instead we should work to a model of self-respect that better fits our European identity and has a lot more depth especially when combined with respect for others. Berlin over Boston.

If we teach our children positive self-respect and give them the skills they need to live it we will not need to displace responsibility for issues like obesity on to arguments as trivial as those directed at advertising. There should be a group set up to ban bad ads.

In particular, some of the bad alcohol ads which present moronic young men as role models for their generation. Rubbish like this should be recycled in one of the proposed new incinerators. But as for fat kids…?

Wake up folks. You made them, you fix them.

Colm Carey is a psychologist and director of The Research Centre

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