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Should Junk Food Ads Be Banned?

The U.K. might ban online ads for unhealthy foods. Should the U.S. do the same? Two Choices advisers weigh in.

YES

Have you ever found yourself standing in front of the fridge with the door open, even though you’re not really hungry? Your eyes dart past the fruit and zero in on the sugary snacks. Before you even take a bite, you’re already salivating. I hate to break it to you, but advertising probably led you to that moment. Ads for foods high in salt, sugar, and fat—aka junk food—are designed to control our appetites and make us crave food we don’t need. These ads are a great marketing strategy for the junk food and fast food companies, but they’re bad news for our health, which is why I think these ads should be banned.

Junk food ads are effective because they hijack our body’s natural way of signaling hunger and can trigger mindless eating. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, people eat 45 percent more after watching food advertising on television, whether they feel hungry or not. All that thoughtless munching can have dire consequences: Research shows that a diet high in junk food can lead to health problems, including a risk of obesity, depression, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

What’s worse, these ads relentlessly target a vulnerable audience—kids. Research shows that kids see 12 junk food ads per hour on some cartoon channels. By the time we have the money to buy our own food, we’re hooked on these unhealthy products.

I agree with people who say that we should all get to make our own choices about the food we eat, but getting rid of ads doesn’t take away our freedom of choice. Rather, it takes away a company’s power to manipulate our choices, so that kids who choose an unhealthy snack are doing so because they legitimately want it, not because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking they want it when they’re not even hungry.

Banning junk food and fast food ads would be a small step toward protecting the kids who are most susceptible to advertising tricks, and it could ultimately improve our odds of developing healthier eating habits early on.

NO

I spent my freshman year of high school in hospitals and treatment centers recovering from an eating disorder. I have firsthand experience of how shaming children for eating foods considered “bad” by society can lead to disordered eating and health problems. If we stopped making certain foods off-limits, junk food and fast food advertisements would not trigger the urge to overeat. That’s why I believe banning these ads will create more problems than it will solve.

A call to eliminate junk food ads doesn’t acknowledge one important truth—kids are always going to want what they can’t have. According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, children whose parents forbade them from eating candy had much stronger responses to candy advertisements than children whose parents allowed them to eat candy from time to time. And in a study by the British Broadcasting Corporation, children even began craving healthy snacks like raisins once they were told these snacks were off-limits. If we were to ban advertisements for unhealthy food, we’d send the message that these foods are forbidden fruit, making them even more alluring.

Additionally, we must remember that for economic and geographic reasons, not everyone has access to a wide variety of foods. Fast food chains, which serve many of the foods we consider “junk” food, are typically inexpensive compared with restaurants that offer healthier items. Fast food, or junk food, may be a family’s only affordable and accessible option. Banning junk food ads might further stigmatize these types of food and cause kids to be shamed by their peers for eating food that is deemed unhealthy by society.

Proponents of banning these ads say that eating junk food and fast food leads to long-term health problems. While I agree that a diet made up exclusively of candy, french fries, and pizza is not ideal, you can enjoy the occasional cupcake or bag of chips and still be healthy.

Rather than forbidding any specific type of food and undermining kids’ autonomy to choose their snacks, we should focus on empowering young people to make balanced food choices—no matter what’s on the menu.

Who Can Resist This?

Junk food advertisements use subtle and sneaky tactics to draw you in. How many of these tricks can you find in the ads for your favorite unhealthy snack?

Name Games:

A clever name can suggest the snack gives you all-day energy. In fact, high-sugar treats can make you crash and burn.

Fake Health Flex:

All that fruit flavor means it’s healthy, right? Wrong: It may contain no fruit at all.

Facetuned Foods:

Designers pump up the images to make the snack look extra-delicious

Social Media Creep:

Digital platforms like Instagram and Facebook let advertisers directly target teens.

Wacky Packaging:

Bright colors and bold graphics can actually trigger your appetite.

Yummy Vocab:

Descriptions of the snack’s mouthfeel target your cravings.

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