One of my pet peeves is the utter demonization of television. Not that I believe that TV is a great thing or that I don’t believe that a lot of people spend way too much time watching it, but I do believe that it is often held to a different standard due to the (erroneous) belief that it is inherently worthless as anything but a time-killer.

One of the areas I have long been skeptical of is the correlation between TV-watching and obesity. It’s not that I don’t believe that such a correlation exists. Rather, I believe that the correlation is greatly exaggerated by confounding factors. Namely, I think that parents that fail to monitor their kids’ TV intake are also likely to fail to monitor their calorie intake. Conscientious parents that reduce or eliminate television watching are also likely to reduce or eliminate junk food. You get the idea. Again, that’s not to say that such is responsible for all of the difference, but I do (or did) think that gets lost in the fervor to prove one’s cultural and intellectual superiority by demonizing television.

According to a new study, though, there may be more to the story than that. It seems that the watching of television in itself may not be the issue. It may be the commercials. For those parents that let their kids watch a lot of TV without commercials – either public programming or videos – there is no predictive value when it comes to obesity. But when you throw commercials in there, you start to see it. This remained true even after they worked to control for the other contributing factors that immediately come to mind.

The biggest thing I’m not sure about in the article is that the culprit is that I think they are overestimating the effectiveness of the advertising. Don’t get me wrong, advertising is important. Particularly when it comes to brand identification. But when it comes to kids’ time horizons and their inability to shop for themselves, I think that there is something else at work here. I mean, I don’t envision kids saying “Ooooh, an ad for Doritos! I will ask Mom for Doritos right now and she will get some next time she is out and then I will love it!

Rather, what I think happens is that kids see an ad for Doritos and say “Mmmh. Hungry. What’s in the pantry?” and if it happens to be Doritos then they have Doritos but otherwise they have whatever is on hand. We very rarely had any name brand stuff that advertised on TV when I was growing up, but I doubt that made me immune from the commercials. Add on to this the fact that the times in which the commercials are showing are perfect times to get food and it helps generate bad habits. Doritos commercial. Hunger. Rustling through cabinet. Eating store-brand Lays knock-offs in time for the show to come back on. That sort of thing.

The government solution to this, if we are looking for one, is to ban food ads during childhood programming. I don’t see that having a whole lot of effect, though, because (a) kids spend time watching more general programming, too, and you still have the bite-size interruptions that just invite people of all ages to go up and grab a bite to eat. To be fair, though, they seemed to at least attempt to control for (b).

From a parenting standpoint, this could be more helpful. It could, if more widely understood, lead to false distinctions about which kinds of sedentary activities are superior to which other sedentary activities. A week ago, I would have said that it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to limit their intake if they just make a beeline to the computer room. But if the study isn’t missing something significant it looks like some of the alternatives to commercial television, including commercial-free television, may actually not be nearly so bad as previously supposed.

It could, of course, be missing something significant. Some of my same concerns about studies that link television watching with obesity could also skew the results of this one. Namely, there’s more than one breed of parent and even though it does trend along SES lines, it’s difficult to impossible to really control for parenting styles. So the subset of parents that let their kids watch television but are conscientious enough about it that the kids don’t end up watching commercials could be curbing the potential obesity with diet-monitoring. So it could demonstrate that it’s less about whether the children watch commercials or not and more about whether the parents are conscientious about what they’re watching (ie PBS and selected videos) can allow their children to watch more television without negative results. That in and of itself is an interesting thought.

Whether it’s commercials or some other factor, though, I much prefer deeper thought than “Kids are fat because they watch too much TV!” as if spending hours on the computer or even reading a book would be better. There are all manner of confounding factors that can be contributing to it. Something as complicated as obesity tends to have numerous causes and what might be the cause for one person left another entirely unscathed. That being said, I am also very wary of people that say “CORRELATION DOES NOT MAKE CAUSATION!” and act as though that ends the discussion. Correlation may not be causation, but it’s still significant. I may be suspicious of the studies that link two hours of television a day to obesity, but it’s still significant and ought to make parents more conscientious about the viewing habits of their youngsters.

Category: Newsroom, Theater

About the Author

8 Responses to Obesity In Thirty Second Spots

  1. web says:

    Regarding correlation v. causation: I am very skeptical of anyone who insists “correlation implies causation”, because that very argument has been behind an incredible amount of pure junk science.

  2. stone says:

    It’s pretty easy nowadays to eliminate commercials with technology. You just let them get 10 minutes ahead on the DVR, then fast-forward through them.

    I don’t ever remember ads for food making me want that food when I was a kid. TV is a real disadvantage because you can’t smell or taste it. I do remember an ad for a candy called “Toffifay,” marketed with a 20s-style production that said it was for grownups, not kids, that stirred my interest. So I tried it once before deciding eh, the grownups could have it.

  3. web says:


    I’ll disagree there. There’s a very visual element to eating, and ads are specifically designed to make the food look as appealing as possible. I can tell you right now, the “ad for food -> hungry person” idea is has a pretty strong case for a causative effect.

  4. stone says:

    At my son’s “school” (really more a day care) there are two brothers about his age (3-ish) who are both obese. It is strange to see an obese small child. They are white, well-groomed, have normal names, are very sociable, and the woman who appears to be their mother shows up in professional clothing and appears slightly older than I am. (Maybe she is really their grandma, I’ve made that mistake a few times.) She is a bit chunky but not obese like the boys are.

    But their overfeeding is apparent even in the short time I see them. Once I saw the mom/caretaker show up to pick them up and hand them each a snack bag of barbecue chips (it was early evening, assumably just before dinnertime). Another time at pickup my husband saw them with a bag of quarters, buying handfuls of M&Ms out of one of those charity vending machines in the lobby. The mom had provided them the money. Remember, these are 2-4 year-olds.

    It appears to be an otherwise responsible family that has an extremely liberal view toward snacks and junk food. It’s weird, because she seems like a woman who would take her kids to the doctor and follow medical advice.

  5. trumwill says:

    Causation, for just about anything this side of lung cancer, is a very high hurdle to leap, so I think it’s foolish to disregard correlation (even in this case, where I am inclined to want to). If a behavior correlates with something undesirable, I think that ought to be taken into account because even if there is not direct causation it can provide a window into potential causes and things to look out for.

    The problem is that some people want to either pass laws or condemn those parents that take an alternate view of causation (in the cases of video games and TV) and accuse them of something akin to child abusers or reckless endangerers, which the data just doesn’t support without demonstrated causality. And of course some people just like to seize moral high ground by being able to forcefully condemn something they dislike, just never liked all that much, or simply never got into in the first place (I’m thinking of all of the hyesteria about social isolation being caused by the Internet a decade or so ago).

  6. trumwill says:

    I think the effectiveness of food advertising varies from individual to individual. Because of my poor sense of smell, I don’t thing nearly as much is “lost in translation” for me as it might be for Sheila. But some products, even products I like such as potato chips, don’t seem to affect me with their advertising. Others, such as soft drinks, do make me thirsty for soft drinks (even if not theirs in particular). Hamburger and pizza ads are somewhere in between. I’d imagine for a more smell-oriented person that they would be less effective.

  7. Peter says:

    One thing you’ll notice about food commercials is that the actors are never overweight, no matter how much high-calorie junk they’re scarfing. It could be argued that the commercials create a false impression that overeating has no consequences.

  8. trumwill says:

    Or simply that mcDonald’s is part of a thin person’s diet. Great point, Peter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

If you are interested in subscribing to new post notifications,
please enter your email address on this page.