The orthodoxy now is that our kids (and their kids) will be fatter than us, that they’ll be less healthy, more idle and more likely to die young. Public health professionals want us – understandably – to change our behaviour. So, they use the magic of extrapolation to produce a picture of a future population markedly less healthy than ours.
I don’t want to argue with the raw data: we are obviously fatter and less active than we used to be. Obesity and all the related illnesses are on the rise. But what of the future? Is it inevitable that we all just get fatter and fatter, sicker and sicker until some kind of epic health meltdown? No, of course not. In fact, the most likely scenario is that we quite quickly – ten to twenty years – reverse the effects of our fatty diets and sedentary lifestyles and head off in another direction all together.
Doom-mongers, politicians and Daily Mail journalists all love extrapolation. Extrapolation from current conditions can be relied on to produce some truly spectacular scare stories – you don’t need to follow the obesity curve out very far before 100% of the human population is clinically obese (or dead). What will actually happen is that the manufacturers, the junk food chains, the supermarkets, governments, health activists, parents and schools (oh, and Jamie Oliver) will, between them, produce a large and decisive change in behaviour. They’ll do this without coordination but probably not without some compulsion and, trust me on this, the primary actors in the reversal of the expected health apocalypse will be… wait for it… the food industry.
This is why banning junk food advertising for kids is an absurdity. The truth is that the advertisers are in the best possible position to address childhood obesity and to get kids exercising. Advertising works (anyone want to argue with that?) and advertising people, properly briefed and motivated, can produce the kind of behavioural changes we need. If anyone can make exercise and healthy lifestyle cool, sugar and fat uncool, it’s the people who currently persuade us, at fabulous expense, to consume Coco Pops, McDonalds and Sunny-D.
What’s needed is a big and unhysterical and non-dogmatic campaign to get everyone on the right team. Advertising people (client and agency) are not evil and lots of them have kids of their own. Once properly motivated they’ll join the cause and promote the right stuff. Public health and private gain are not incompatible. It might be McDonalds that gets your kid exercising.