Advertising to our youth is costing us in more ways than one

It’s clear that the environment a child grows up in plays a fundamental role in their development, and a lot of time and money has been committed towards learning about the different pathways that influence our younger selves. Research has been devoted to the effectiveness of advertising on the human brain, particularly among our youth.

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Advertising certainly has its place in a society, as a vehicle for informing the population about the choices it faces. It’s not just the latest social media campaign you saw online, there’s a lot of product advertisement that helps us make healthy choices for ourselves. But without a doubt, there’s a dark side to the advertising industry, and it seems at its worst when it targets children: using athletes that kids admire, associating food with play, and even the design choice of the illustration on a cereal box. Companies are more effective than ever at targeting potential consumers at a young age to develop brand loyalty that can last a lifetime. This raises a host of ethical issues about whether advertising has its place among youth – Sweden, Norway, and Quebec have banned all forms of advertising to children under the age of 12.


It’s even worse when paired with the fact that most of these products can lead to the development of sugar addiction at an early age. The comparisons with the tobacco industry are obvious. And similarly (and depressingly unsurprisingly), the junk food industry is heavily subsidized by the United States government. The point of these subsidies is to help producers keep food affordable for all consumers. Besides the moral imperative, these subsidies should also generate savings to our country in other areas.


I know, we’ve told you about this issue before, you say. But now there’s quantitative evidence to back us up.


Last week we discussed a recently published modeling effort that examined the cost effectiveness of several different interventions, called the CHOICES study. One of the programs analyzed, the elimination of a tax subsidy for advertising unhealthy food to children, would save more than $260 million in the form of reduced childhood obesity over a ten year period if implemented nationally. This comes to about $33 saved per dollar spent. The estimate actually ranged from $94 million to as much as $431 million in savings, giving it a positive return under any scenario.


So next time you find yourself saying is that this is an important ethical issue affecting our children, remember that it’s also a financial issue your tax dollars are paying for.

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