Thursday, 16 February 2012

On air

Posted by Jean Adams

I was on BBC Radio Newcastle this morning with Charlie and Alfie. We were talking about some new research that we’ve just published on the effects of regulations restricting TV junk food advertising to kids. It was kind of fun. Charlie and Alfie seem to just mess around a bit, link to the weather and traffic, and sometimes talk in a light hearted way about semi-serious subjects (is it bad that I’ve never listened to the local radio breakfast show before?).

Charlie & Alfie
Our research explored the nutritional content of food being advertised on UK TV before and after new regulations came in restricting advertising of less healthy foods during children’s programming. We found no difference in the amount of advertising for less healthy foods that kids were seeing following the regulations. But the regulations were widely adhered to. The explanation? Kids watch more than just children’s programmes.

The work has also been covered by BBC News Online, Sky Tyne and Wear, and some other places you’ll likely never have heard of.

I think the work is really, really important: regulations on TV food advertising are adhered to by broadcasters, but as they stand they have no effect on kids exposure to unhealthy food ads. Implication: extend the regulations to all TV and they will work. The study also draws attention to an, ineffective, government initiative that both Labour and the Coalition have been quite enthusiastic about.

I spent quite a lot of time working with the University Press Office on a press release. The press officers tried pretty hard to get a variety of journalists interested yesterday. Local radio and BBC online is so not good coverage. So why doesn’t anyone care about my baby research?

I haven’t quite worked out the answer to this yet. But I think there might be a variety of reasons. Firstly, the whole idea that adverts and marketing might alter our behaviour is pretty difficult – it rather challenges the idea of free-will. Next, even if food adverts do effect what our kids eat (they do), it’s probably only a small effect amongst many other (also small) effects. So it’s a difficult topic to get excited about. Also, I’m wondering if the ‘no effect’ message is just not that exciting – ‘kids seeing more junk food ads, despite regulations’ might have been a much more interesting line.

But what I’m starting to think more about, is that the problem might be related to how the media works. Our university press officers primarily work with biomedical scientists. They are used to targeting science journalists with releases. Is an analysis of the effect of food advertising rules science? Or is it maybe consumer studies, or some other sort of wishy-washy social science? Personally, I don’t really care what it is, and I’m happy to be a multi-disciplinary public health researcher. But if journalists at national daily outlets only cover their own beat, and there’s no beat for multi-disciplinary public health research/wishy-washy social science, I guess we’re screwed.

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