Dr Darren Powell is a lecturer in health education at the faculty of education and social work at the University of Auckland

It looks as though our Advertising Standards Authority will, once again, fail to adopt a strict code of food advertising to children and young people. This is hardly surprising.

In neoliberal societies such as our own, the wants of the private sector frequently take priority over the needs of citizens, including children. This is especially true for the "Big Food" industry. which includes the multinational food and drink producers with massive marketing power.

A raft of public health experts, journalists, researchers and the public blame Big Food products, lobbying and marketing practices for the childhood obesity "crisis".


However, the food and drink industry refutes these claims (remarkably, by arguing that their multi-million dollar, child-focused advertising campaigns do not affect children's consumption), and is now successfully re-inventing itself as part of the solution.

One so-called solution is a "commitment" (a concocted, self-regulated, non-binding commitment) to the World Health Organisation and various governments to restrict the marketing of junk food to children and to promote healthy lifestyles.

We see these "solutions" at work in multiple ways.

McDonald's, for instance, sponsors numerous sports events, provides meal vouchers at junior football games and now advertises "healthy" products to children, such as wraps, sliced apples and bottled water - obviously the three most popular choices for a Happy Meal.

Nestle New Zealand provides free "health education" resources to schools. It has also marketed Milo, a recent "winner" of Consumer NZ's Bad Taste Food Awards, as the "official drink of play".

Although on the surface it looks as if corporations are promoting healthy lifestyles and health products, at the same time they are stealthily creating and profiting from a new market - advertising "health" to children.

This is where the narrow focus on "junk" food advertising restrictions is naive, even dangerous: all advertising to children is potentially "unhealthy".

Children are being conditioned to believe attaining good health is as simple as listening to advertising and consuming the right products. This deflects attention from complex and powerful determinants of health, such as genetics, poverty, colonisation and inequality.


Through marketing, children's understanding of health is being altered. It is moving away from traditional and cultural perspectives of well-being and towards a corporate-friendly version of health that emphasises individual consumption.

Rather than being shaped by culture, biological needs or family income, children's choices are increasingly being guided by mascots, cartoon characters, product placement, free toys, free educational resources, sponsorship, philanthropy, and the promise of a fit, non-fat, socially acceptable body.

This must stop - our policymakers must introduce controls that prevent children being advertising targets. And it can be done. Brazil, for example, has made it illegal to market any products to children on the basis that it is equivalent to child abuse.

We must challenge the assumption that marketing healthy lifestyles and healthy choices is inherently "healthy" and examine how marketing tactics may actually shape children's thoughts and actions in unhealthy ways.

Further, we must find better ways to make advertising - of both "healthy" and "unhealthy" products - abnormal and help children to become critical consumers, aware of marketing strategies and stealthy tactics such as sponsorship, product placement and "educational", "health-promoting" programmes.

In the end, it doesn't matter whether it is Big Macs or sliced apples, Milo or milk, we must contest the idea that marketing to children is normal, natural, necessary or harmless.

After all, should children's eating and exercise be shaped by their needs, or by the needs of corporations to improve public relations, brand trust and their bottom line?