Working Paper No. 04-45:
Obesity and Advertising Policy

Author(s):

Todd Zywicki, Deborah Holt, Maureen Ohlhausen

Date Posted: 2004

Availability:
Abstract (below) | Full text (most recent) on SSRN

Abstract:

It is clear that Americans are getting fatter, both adults and children. This development has led some to call for a ban on food advertising directed at children. There are numerous practical and constitutional difficulties with such a policy. This article poses a more fundamental question — even if feasible, would restricting food advertising do anything to reduce obesity or even slow its trends? The article also considers whether the social costs of banning advertising could outweigh the social benefits of such an action.

This article provides a review of the literature on the fundamental causes of the American obesity problem as well as the purported contribution of children's advertising to the problem. The final conclusion is inescapable — the available evidence does not support the theory that children's exposure to food advertising has significantly contributed to increased children's obesity. Although children's obesity rates have skyrocketed during the past two decades, the available evidence indicates that children's exposure to food advertising has remained constant or has even declined during that same period.

This article first describes the existing theories and empirical evidence regarding the causal factors in the American obesity problem. Second, the article examines in detail the claim that the rise in children's obesity has been caused in whole or in part by food advertising directed at children. Available evidence and observations regarding the exposure of children to food advertising fail to support the hypothesis that increased food advertising directed at children has significantly contributed to the rise in childhood obesity. As a result, there is also little reason to believe that greater restrictions on advertising directed at children will do much at all to staunch the increase in children's obesity. Third, the article reviews the existing literature on the positive effects that advertising can have on increasing consumer knowledge and choice. Thus, even though there is little evidence that advertising is the cause of the obesity problem, it is likely that advertising can play a positive role in being part of the solution to obesity by providing more information to consumers and by providing incentives to create and market healthier food alternatives.