Stop marketing junk food to kids

by Bruce Mason and Joel Bakan

In Canada, as much as 90 percent of the food marketed to children and youth on TV is unhealthy


junk food
photo © Roman Samokhin

Food and beverage companies bombard our children with millions of irresistible messages every year, and we’re all living the unhealthy results. It’s time for Canadians to fight back. Tell food and beverage companies our kids are not their business. Tell government to restrict commercial food and beverage marketing to our children. Take action at

Joel Bakan: Childhood Under Siege

interview by Bruce Mason

In 2016, ‘back to school time’ is unlike any other in history. Children now spend more hours interacting with unregulated electronic devices than in classrooms and are more and more unsupervised. Meanwhile, their buying power is estimated to be $1 trillion. Profit-seeking corporations are mining these unprecedented contemporary realities in a relentless commercial assault, exploiting the unique needs and vulnerabilities of children, rendering parents and society virtually powerless. This crisis rivals damage being done to the environment and democracy; indeed, it is harming children – and the very nature of childhood – our cherished sources of humanity’s future.

To assess this urgent and growing threat, Common Ground contacted Joel Bakan, a UBC law professor (and guitarist) and author of The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power (2004). This international, best-selling book and subsequent popular, award-winning feature documentary, characterize modern corporations as psychopathic, self-interested, manipulative and amoral, by definition, and in behaviour. Concerns about his conclusions led to his writing Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children (2011). Among other projects, he’s currently working on a film on this subject. In his words, “It’s getting worse and too many people still aren’t getting it.”

Bruce Mason: The book contains myriad issues, including increasing quantities of toxic chemicals in the environment, the explosion of harmful, psychotropic drugs to medicate children and tactics that play on intense emotions and desires to lure children into obsessive consumerism and “anti-social” social media. Many of our readers are concerned about junk food. What are your thoughts?

Joel Bakan: It’s difficult to imagine a more cynical art than the deliberate goal of making money by tapping kids’ developing and vulnerable psyches to elicit addictive play. The problem with the junk food industry – and global corporations – is not only marketing practices. It’s also the fact that it scientifically designs food to create addictive and compulsive eating, high in sugar, fat and salt. So it’s aiming to quite literally hook kids on food that is unhealthy, which, needless to say, will have profound effects on their life-long eating habits.

BM: Please explain “siege” in the title.

JB: Siege is scary, often in relation to totalitarian regimes. Here, we have a powerful force targeting and exploiting children. Let’s be clear about this: there is nothing in the character of the legally constituted corporation to suggest it would do anything else but maximize profit. Advertising sells products and brands, but it also promotes values and behaviours. Gaming consoles, smart phones, tablets and other devices and hardware are ubiquitous. So a siege-like force has been inserted between children and parents, who now compete with Facebook, Twitter and other platforms for kids’ attention. That’s calculated and frightening. But siege also indicates that resistance is possible.

Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.” By that measure, our failure to protect children from corporate-caused harm reveals a sickness. We can expect – and are getting – growing exploitation. By design, the unique needs and vulnerabilities of children are being targeted. That’s the issue I heard about most after finishing The Corporation.”

BM: You also utilize a Karl Marx quote to help illustrate increasing concerns.

JB: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances…” In the 20th century, two legal entities were created: children and corporations. Over the last 30 years, corporate interest has increasingly prevailed. Deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement and legal and political resistance to regulations have eroded our ability to protect children.

Comic books were once the only [means of] advertising to children. In the ‘50s, television in living rooms began a trend of increasing exposure and direct access to teens, tweens and younger children. That’s continually ramped up through technology and it’s difficult to put the genie back in the bottle. This isn’t something new, but it’s now 24-7, 360 degrees. It’s most interesting that nothing has changed, nothing is being done, beyond some anaemic attempts – which get tangled in courts – and naive calls for self-regulation.

BM: Can you give us a specific example of the “siege” closer to home.

JB: More than 200 million child labourers work in harsh and unhealthy conditions, for little pay, often making the products that fuel our hyper-consumerism. But BC has the most astonishingly neglectful child labour laws in North America, indeed in the world. Afghanistan and Haiti have more protective laws on their books. In this province, a child can go to work at 12, in just about any job, hazardous or not – mines, taverns, bars and lounges are the only exceptions – and be required to work at any time of the day or night except during school hours. The introduction of this regime by a Liberal government in 2004 – before which the minimum work age was 15 – was rationalized as being “economically competitive” and has substantially increased the number of children working in the province. Despite these facts, wilful blindness continues to foster the belief that child labour is only a problem “out there” in the developing world, but not here at home.

BM: Last month, we reviewed Jim Hoggan’s I’m Right and You’re re an Idiot, in which he calls for progressive, concerned people to improve communication. Do you agree?

JB: Yes, we must create more compelling and creative narratives. Frankly, I think we should ridicule this “siege” more often. When it’s apparent that things have gone so clearly wrong that we can’t abide it any longer, people will rebel in surprising and unanticipated ways. There are signs of cracks in the corporate oligarchy, including the rise and “revolution” of Bernie Sanders and our own rejection of Stephen Harper’s conservatism. Now it is time to take off any rose-tinted glasses, to raise and share awareness and promote new curricula that includes media literacy.

Public regulatory systems and other governmental measures can certainly provide better protection and support for children. But that will not happen unless we, as citizens, demand that it does, which is why, I believe, being a good parent today requires more than just making good choices. It also requires that we work to change the conditions in which we make those choices; that we demand governments take action to protect children from harm at the hands of corporations and other economic actors.

Being a good parent, in other words, means becoming engaged as a citizen in the collective practice of remaking society – in that thing called democracy.

Children are exposed to more commercial marketing than ever

Marketing of food and beverages to children in Canada is largely self-regulated by the same industries that profit from this practice.

In 2010, the World Health Organization called on its member nations to reduce the impact of marketing of foods high in fats, sugars or salt to children.

61% of popular children’s websites market unhealthy food and beverages.

As much as 90% of food and beverages marketed on TV are high in salt, fat, sugar or calories.

Research has shown that food and beverage marketing has an impact on:

  • The foods children eat.
  • Their food preferences and beliefs.
  • The foods they pester their parents to buy.
  • Rising rates of childhood obesity.
  • Increased risk factors for chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.

Worsening health trends

In Canada, over 1/4 of children and youth age 5 to 19 say they consume sugary drinks every day.

Childhood obesity levels in Canada have tripled since 1981, with almost one in three children overweight or obese.

Canadian kids’ risk factors for premature heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes are at epidemic levels.

Over the past 70 years, consumption of processed and ultra-processed foods in Canada has doubled, from 30% of the average family’s food purchases to 60%.

Most of the sodium Canadians consume (77%) comes from processed foods sold in grocery stores and food service outlets.

Health organizations tell food industry: Pick on someone your own age

In February, a national coalition advocating for restrictions on food and beverage marketing to children and youth was launched at the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada (CDPAC) annual conference. Co-led by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation, the Stop Marketing to Kids Coalition says the time has come to protect children and support parents to make healthy decisions for their families.

“Marketing works, plain and simple. This is why food and beverage companies do it and this is why it has to stop where our children’s health is concerned,” says David Sculthorpe, CEO, Heart and Stroke Foundation. “Our children are not their business.”

In Canada, as much as 90 percent of the food marketed to children and youth on TV is unhealthy. Kids are targeted through many channels and in different venues. This includes TV and movies, and in schools, rec centres, stores, restaurants and across the Internet. Tactics include logo placement, coupon giveaways, sponsorships, celebrity endorsements, branded videogames, product placement and toy giveaways in restaurants.

“Parents work extremely hard to teach their children healthy habits as they know the habits they form at an early age follow them through their lives. We need to help parents as they strive to instill healthy preferences in their children,” says Dr. Tom Warshawski, Chair, Childhood Obesity Foundation. “To do this, we need to protect our children and youth from harmful industry marketing tactics.”

The coalition has developed the Ottawa Principles, which outline the policy recommendation of restricting commercial marketing of all food and beverages to children and youth 16 and under, with marketing being defined as any means of advertising or promoting products or services. The restrictions would not apply to non-commercial marketing for valid public health education or public awareness campaigns. The Ottawa Principles also include a set of definitions, scope and principles to guide policy development.

“Our children and youth deserve to be protected and respected,” says Raffi Cavoukian, singer, author and founder of Centre for Child Honouring. “I am proud to endorse the principles of the Stop Marketing to Kids coalition and I encourage the government to put restrictions in place as soon as possible.”

Unhealthy eating choices are closely linked with childhood overweight and obesity, which can result in the premature onset of heart disease and stroke risk factors, such as high blood pressure.

Regulations limiting marketing to children have been effective and cost efficient. Furthermore, restricting TV food advertising to children would be one of the most cost-effective, population-based interventions available to governments today.

At the same time, industry measures to self-regulate have not worked. Research shows that the nutritional quality of food advertised to children hasn’t improved and the amount of advertising has actually increased since industry adopted voluntary measures.

As well as the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Childhood Obesity Foundation, the coalition includes eight Canadian health and civil society organizations as partners. Dozens of other groups and key individuals have endorsed the Ottawa Principles.

More information about the coalition, including the Ottawa Principles and a mechanism for concerned Canadians to send their member of parliament a letter supporting restrictions on food and beverage marketing to kids, is available at the coalition website,

Coalition supporting partners

  • Childhood Obesity Foundation (founding member)
  • Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada (founding member)
  • BC Healthy Living Alliance
  • Canadian Cancer Society
  • Canadian Diabetes Association
  • Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada
  • Dietitians of Canada
  • Food Secure Canada
  • Toronto Public Health
  • Quebec Coalition on Weight related problems

Leave a comment