Stalking the Couch Potato, Part 1

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: rebecka_o / flickr

Photo: rebecka_o / flickr

I’ve been working with a neuroscientist on a proposal for a book about the societal causes of childhood obesity.  The proposal is written, which is why I can be back here, blogging, after a hiatus of several months. Elliott Blass, my writing partner, is in charge of sending the proposal to selected agents, editors, and publishers, offering it to them for publication.

So far we haven’t had a taker, but I keep reminding myself (and Elliott) that the literary classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig, (a treatise on excellence that is about neither Zen nor motorcycle maintenance) went to 122 publishers before it found its way into print. Since it appeared in 1974, the book has sold more than 4 million copies and remains in print, probably setting a record surpassed only by the Bible.

So on we plod, hoping not to surpass Pirsig’s record for the number of rejections.  But we wouldn’t mind passing him in the number of years in print.

What you have before you is a small excerpt from the sample chapter that accompanies the proposal. I’ll continue posting excerpts from time to time. If you have young children and haven’t done so already, I’m aiming to inspire you to look at the influence that advertising has over their food preferences. If you’re not directly engaged with little ones, perhaps you’ll feel called upon to express your thoughts about what you read here in a message to your legislators.


No matter where they appear, advertisements have a single purpose: to make people believe they will be happier if they buy the advertiser’s product. The sales pitch may be that you’ll have more fun, or more money, be healthier, smarter, or more attractive, but it all comes down to happiness. That’s what everyone wants, and what everyone is selling: buy this and be happy.

The pursuit of happiness is such a fundamental part of being human that it’s not surprising that even the most sophisticated of adults sometimes fall for the blandishments of advertising. But the suggestibility of adults is nothing, compared to that of children who lack the life experience needed to separate fact from fiction.

Before they turn two, most children are already watching television on their own, without the influence of an adult who might weigh in against the claims of commercials meant to sell foods and drinks that undercut healthful eating at the most critical time in a person’s life. Early childhood is when feeding preferences and the acceptable range of foods and flavors develop. It is also the period of maximum growth, of both body and brain.

Lack of exposure to a wide variety of foods, not just the sweet, fatty, salty, and high-calorie foods and beverages displayed on the TV screen, has a variety of unfortunate consequences. An overweight toddler will probably be an obese adolescent. And adolescent obesity is almost certain to lead to obesity as an adult, with the accompanying risk of major diseases. What’s more, it takes a wide range of foods to provide the micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, and amino acids – required for healthy growth. Potato chips, cookies, and soda pop won’t do. Nutritional deficiencies that develop in childhood are likely to persist throughout life.

Today, 80 percent of homes have two or more television sets. Among children under two years of age, 25 percent have a TV set in their own bedrooms, as do 60 percent of children aged eight or older. Television viewing has become an increasingly solitary activity. Parents have little control over what their children see, thus little opportunity to contradict information that they consider erroneous or contrary to the values they want to impart to their children. It’s not that these parents don’t care; solo TV watching has become the norm, in large part because many adults must hold more than one job to keep the family afloat. They simply don’t have the energy to do more than work, eat, and sleep.

Thus children become desensitized to the violence that characterizes even Saturday morning cartoons. But even worse, from the standpoint of their health and their futures, they accept as true everything television tells them.

What a rich opportunity this presents to advertisers. Even when broadcasters in the United States adhere to the advertising limits set by the Federal Communications Commission – 10.5 minutes per hour on weekdays and 12 minutes hourly on the weekend – the average child is exposed to three and a half hours of commercials per week, and between 20,000 and 40,000 television advertisements in a year. At least half of these promote sugary cereals, candy, snacks, and beverages, or invite the child to visit a fast food restaurant, where the meals are consist mainly of fat, salt, and a high-calorie dessert.

Remember: all of these advertisements are promising happiness in return for obeying the message they convey.

Studies have shown that before they reach the age of nine, even though they may recognize that the cartoon characters they see are not real, children do not distinguish between the program they are watching and the commercials that interrupt them. They are unlikely to understand that the commercials are there to make them urge their parents to buy the foods or take them to the restaurants advertised. Unlike older children and adults, they have no defenses against commercial claims.

The money invested in advertising to children is well spent. A report sets the value of the children’s food market, in 2009 dollars, at $32.5 billion. That number represents the influence children have on their parents’ food buying decisions. But it’s not only present-day purchases the marketers are after. Ample evidence exists that preferences established when a child is five or six will last a lifetime. As adults, they may not choose Cocoa Puffs themselves, but nostalgia, if nothing else, is apt to make them offer the chocolate cereal to their toddlers, even before the children are old enough to ask for it. Thus, the $12 billion or so that manufacturers invest this year in marketing to children will pay off for a generation or more to come.

© 2010 Miryam Ehrlich Williamson. Bloggers are welcome to link to this page, but no one is welcome to reproduce this document in any form, anywhere, without express permission from the author, which can be obtained by writing to TB40 ~ at ~ mwilliamson ~ dot ~ com

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4 Responses to “Stalking the Couch Potato, Part 1”

  1. Children are at risk in every neighborhood. Nutrition is so important!

  2. This is fascinating.  I have three very skinny teens; and they have started to ask why they are so slender? Could it be because we never had TV before they were teens? Really fascinating post.

  3. […] If you missed Part 1 of this chapter, it’s here. […]

  4. […] case you missed them, here are the links for Parts 1,  2, and […]

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