the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency (Hastings et al., 2003); a narrative research review conducted by the United Kingdom’s Office of Communications (Ofcom), the new regulator for the UK communications industries (Ofcom, 2004); a collaborative analysis of research from 20 European countries sponsored by the European Commission and administered through the European Heart Network (Matthews et al., 2005); and a series of related reports published by the World Health Organization (WHO) examining the possible linkages between marketing and childhood obesity (WHO and FAO, 2003), as well as the international regulatory environment for addressing such concerns (Hawkes, 2004).
These international reports all concur on a number of fundamental conclusions. First, they all find that advertising directed to children, particularly on television, is heavily populated by commercials for foods that pose adiposity and related health risks for children when consumed in abundance, although each report prefers different language for labeling such commodities. For example, the Ofcom (2004) report terms such food products “high in fat, salt, and sugar” and uses the acronym HFSS in an effort to be sensitive to the argument that there are no less healthful foods, whereas the European Heart Network’s report explicitly rejects such argument and uses the term “unhealthy foods” to describe the dominant category of edibles marketed to children (Matthews et al., 2005). Second, all these reports agree that food marketers spend significant resources to advertise to children, and that children consequently have heavy exposure to such advertising. And third, they all agree (ones that address this topic) that children under age 8 years have limited ability to recognize persuasive intent in commercials, leading to the expectation that food advertising to young children may be particularly effective (Hastings et al., 2003; Ofcom, 2004; WHO and FAO, 2003).
On the critical question of the direct evidence linking marketing to children’s food consumption and to childhood obesity, the research reviews take somewhat different paths to end up at similar points, reaching conclusions consonant with those established by this committee’s own analysis presented earlier in this chapter. Most of the reports employ a traditional narrative approach in which the relevant research is reviewed and evaluated in interpretive fashion. Some, such as the Ofcom (2004) report, buttress their analysis with commissioned literature review papers prepared by media effects experts (Livingstone, 2004; Livingstone and Helsper, 2004).
The key conclusion of the Ofcom report holds that television “… advertising has a modest, direct effect on children’s food choices” (Ofcom, 2004, P. 23). It notes further that indirect effects are likely to be larger, but that there is insufficient evidence at the present time to determine their size relative to other factors. The WHO and FAO (2003) report concludes that the heavy marketing of high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and fast food