Sitting in the cinema, one recent Sunday afternoon, we waited patiently for Inside Out to start. A McDonald’s ad flashed up on screen. One with a girl dressed as a fairy. My kids were transfixed. I was transfixed too, but for entirely different reasons. I can’t remember the last time my kids saw a fast food ad. Fast food ads are banned from children’s TV programming in Ireland, and at home we mostly watch Netflix, so there’s zero exposure. So I was surprised to see Happy Meals up on the big screen, and not in a good way. At the risk of sounding dramatic, I felt like we were a captive audience being forced to watch something we wouldn’t normally see. And yes, that does sound dramatic. But it’s an honest description of my instinctive gut reaction at the time. The message I took from the advertisers was “We can’t get your kids on TV anymore, but we’ll catch them at the cinema.”
And it’s not like my kids don’t know what McDonald’s is – they’ve been there, because we’ve taken them there. But that’s the point – it was on our terms, which is how it should be. Not pushed onto us on a 50 foot screen. Ditto the jelly ad that came on right after.
Ads on TV are under the remit of the BAI, and there’s a strict code in place that prevents fast food ads being shown during children’s programming. But cinema ads fall under the ASAI, and while there are regulations, there’s no ban. As a consumer and a parent, I don’t see the difference between kids’ TV and kids’ movies but presumably being regulated by two different agencies is a factor. The ASAI has recently introduced a new code with stricter regulations but there’s still nothing to stop a McDonald’s ad being shown during Inside Out.
For parents who are trying to get it right – trying to understand whether we should be giving full-fat or low-fat, whether we should give protein with every meal or actively cut down on meat, whether yogurt drinks and smoothies are good or bad, it’s a minefield. But what’s really frustrating is when it’s taken out of our hands.
Similarly, when crèche and preschools give treats and cordial as standard, control is taken away from parents. There is no nutritional value whatsoever – no rationale – for giving fruit cordial to children in crèche, but I’m aware of one childcare provider near me that does just that. Others are giving buns as rewards to kids for finishing dinner. To me, treats are the prerogative of parents, not childcare providers. And most of us do give treats from time to time, but it’s within our own control.
Cake is the weakness in our house – most weekends, we take the kids out to a favourite coffee shop for a treat. And if we bake, they get to eat the outcome. And sometimes in between all that, there are treats. And during holidays, it could be every day. But it’s within our control and that’s what counts. We’re knowingly trying our best to get nutrition right, and knowingly having treats – as a treat.
Researching this article for the Examiner recently – asking why Ireland is on track to be the most obese nation in Europe by 2030 – I spoke to a number of wise and informative nutritional experts. And what was clear (apart from the fact that while we’re in trouble, we’re by no means the worst country) was that there’s no single factor causing this. There are many, many reasons underlying our climb up the obesity ladder – advertising, environment, alcohol, low breastfeeding rates, public health initiatives and lack of physical exercise in schools. So a lot of what’s going wrong is beyond the control of each of us as individuals – a bit like fast food ads at the cinema and daily treats in crèche. Small issues in their own right – hardly worth debating. But it all adds up to normalizing treat-food as everyday-food for impressionable little minds and bodies.
To see what the nutritionists had to say, here’s the full Examiner article: Why is Ireland on course to be the fattest nation in Europe?