I’m always ambivalent about using legislation to change behaviour. You have to be smart about it; blanket bans can wind up backfiring. (Memo to self: confirm there’s no legislation banning blankets.)
But my immediate reaction to the proposal in Ontario to ban marketing junk food to kids is pretty unambiguous: go for it.
Here’s where I should run through the public health evidence supporting such a ban (for instance, after a similar ban in Quebec, fast-food purchases fell 13%). And where I should acknowledge the need for a broader set of policies in addition to legislation.
But instead, I’m just going to tell you that I have an overwhelming bias on this score: a deep-seated, unshakeable hatred for candy stands at checkout counters. Specifically, the candy stands that sit – in store after store after store after store – at kids’-eye level.
There’s a lot that the world of marketing does that I loathe, but there isn’t much that’s such a naked act of aggression against a parent’s ability to promote their child’s health. (Once you get past the breakfast cereal industry, anyway.) It’s no accident that the candy’s where it is, and no accident that kids encounter it while their parents’ attention is diverted by the checkout process.
And yes, parents should be able to say “no” and kids should listen. Parents should also be well-rested, store visits should be swift and efficient way to buy your necessities, and children should be happily singing “The Lonely Goatherd” in three-part harmony.
But that’s not how it works, is it? When you’re buying groceries at the end of a long day with kids in tow, everyone’s temper’s frazzled. The daily frustrations of work and school, the 50 or so times you said “no” back in the freezer section, the cereal section, the cookie section, the bakery, the end-of-the-aisle Cap’n Crunch ambush display, the potato chips section, the soda pop section…
…and then as you fumble for your bank card, driver’s license and loyalty card with one hand, wallet tucked under the arm attached to the other hand which is trying to hold a wailing toddler back from bolting out past the sliding doors and into the parking lot…
…trying not to think about how you’re not 100% sure your card’s not going to get declined…
…the clever marketing minds at Safeway and Shoppers Drug Mart have figured out you might be a little more vulnerable than usual. Or a lot. And that you may be willing to give in, and buy some peace and quiet, or a little forgiveness for the horrible things you said while you were prying your kids out of the Popsicle freezer.
And if that means sabotaging your efforts at a healthier diet for your kids – or yourself – well, that’s a price they’re willing to pay. Especially since they aren’t paying it. (And in the case of Shoppers Drug Mart, because with repeated success it means future customers for their weight-loss supplements, insulin, cardiac and blood-pressure meds and, ultimately, condolence cards. That’s probably a little harsh, but then again these are the same fine folks who fight every restriction on retail tobacco marketing tooth and nail.)
Is legislation the answer? Until I hear a solid argument otherwise, I’ll be a supporter. In the meantime, in provinces that aren’t yet considering it, I’d love to see a parents’ movement come together around convincing retailers to remove those displays.
It doesn’t even have to be about morality or public policy. It can be about this: every kids’-eye-level checkout candy display makes my job as a parent that much harder. You want to earn my consumer loyalty? Get rid of the damn things.