Do advertising bans work? New research by Assistant Professor Tirtha Dhar


Could it really be as simple as cutting out the ads and watching the kids slim down and get healthy?

A Sauder School of Business study of Quebec’s 32-year ban on fast food advertising found that people in that province bought less junk food and their children tend to weigh less than their North American counterparts.

“That regulation effectively reduced fast food consumption in households by as much as 13 per cent each week,” says Asst. Prof. Tirtha Dhar, a professor in the marketing division at Sauder.

In the first study of its kind, Dhar investigated the impact of the world’s first and oldest advertising ban on fastfood. Enacted in 1980, Quebec legislation prohibits advertising of products such as toys and fast food which target children in print and electronic media. In the past decade, other countries have followed suit with similar bans, among them Norway, Sweden, Greece and the U.K.

Dhar says the annual drop in household fast food purchases represents the equivalent of US $88 million in 2010 dollars. “In terms of meals, that reduction represents 13 and 18 billion fewer fast-food calories a year.”

Co-authored with Asst. Prof. Kathy Baylis at the University of Illinois, the study appeared in a recent issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

Using Statistics Canada data for 1984-1992 household expenditures on fast food among francophone families with children in Quebec, Dhar and Baylis compared the consumption behaviour of representative households in Quebec to that of Ontario, using determinants such as French-language, economic and socio-demographic characteristics. Data wasn’t available after 1996 when the surveys stopped recording mother tongue—a key variable of the study.

Dhar points out that Quebec has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in Canada, though its children have one of the most sedentary lifestyles according to 2005 Statistics Canada data.

More importantly, he says, the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey shows that the combined overweight and obesity rate among two-to 17-year-olds in Quebec is significantly below the national level.

In North America, where two out of every 10 children are overweight or obese, the debate over advertising legislation is a heated one. What sets their work apart from previous studies, says Dhar, is that it draws from field-level data and is the first study to explore “the real world impact of advertising regulation.”

“The existing research on advertising bans drew from lab experiments or data from small cross-sectional surveys that give you a snapshot of a point in time. The situation in Quebec is unique because we’re able to see the real impact of regulation over a longer period.”

However, Dhar cautions against adopting legislation as the magic bullet to vanquish problems like childhood obesity. “It’s getting tougher to regulate advertising since children can be reached through the Internet, social media, smartphones and other mobile devices.

“Legislation should just be one of the tools in a larger, comprehensive plan that includes education about healthy eating and parental care,” says Dhar. “The key issue is how you manage the environment for your children, from which TV programs they watch to the kinds of food they eat.”

First printed in UBC Reports, Feb 1, 2012