When traveling in foreign lands I always tune into the local TV for a few hours each day. I’m currently in the middle of a two-week trip to France (which explains why the OpEdge blogs have not been as topical as usual), and so have been watching some French TV.
For the most part, I can’t tell the difference between the offerings on French and American TV: Reality TV, superficial news coverage, police procedurals, situation comedies and mediocre or popular movies dominate French television programming, some of it older episodes of American shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Two and a Half Men (called “Uncle Charlie,” a name they’ll now have to change). I even got to see the end of Police Academy I and the beginning of Police Academy II dubbed in French the other night.
The French TV commercials also resemble those on American TV. The major products sold are cars and fast, junk and processed food products such as Kellogg’s cereal with chocolate and frozen bread. Not a commercial break went by in which I didn’t see a commercial for McDonald’s, although I have seen no commercial for any kind of alcohol.
But there is one enormous difference between French and American TV. Every French commercial for fast, junk and processed food has a warning superimposed on the screen. The warnings I have seen include (my translations):
“Avoid eating between meals”
“Have at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.”
“For your health, avoid eating too much sugar and fat.”
“For your health, participate regularly in physical activity”
Statistically speaking, the French are among the slimmest people in the developed world, but obesity there doubled from 1994 to 2003. The French weight problem, however, pales compared to what we face in the United States. Here are the latest statistics I was able to find in a quick Internet search (with some rounding up or down):
United States: 34%
United States: 34%
Obesity among children:
United States: 17%
Ranking among 29 developed countries:
United States: First!!
And here’s the kicker: A few years ago, France became the first country in the European Union in which childhood obesity rates have started to level off.
Obesity is bad for the individuals carrying the extra pounds and it’s bad for society in general. Obesity (and to the lesser extent being overweight) has been linked to a number of serious health problems including diabetes and heart disease. Obesity also costs our society a lot of money, since people with health problems consume many more medical resources than those without a weight problem and thus jack up the cost of health insurance for everyone.
The French government saw the problem and acted. The French are doing many things to overcome their weight problem, but only the naïve (or those with a vested interest) could deny that a major step is to remind people of healthy eating habits every time they see tantalizing commercials for innutritious or less nutritious food. TV is the main source of information for many people, and TV commercials use just about every tactic and technique of persuasion.
By contrast, the United States seems to pay lip service only to acknowledging and acting upon our collective weight problem:
There are no warnings on American TV commercials for fast, processed and junk food.
The Food and Drug Administration’s food pyramid was turned into a confusing mess, and it remains to be seen if the new “food plate” will be any better.
Our mass media stresses exercise as much as, if not more than, reduced food consumption as the key to losing weight. Regular exercise is important for many reasons, but when it comes to weight loss, it’s absurd to put as much stress on exercise as on food consumption once you learn that it takes a half an hour to an hour of moderate exercise to work off one donut.
Why the difference? Here’s my take: When the French government saw the problem, it acted in the best interest of its people, whereas the U.S. government has felt constrained by the lobbying efforts of processed, junk and fast food interests. Both France and the United States have market economies, but the French are much more willing to intervene in the markets for the good of the country.
There is no such thing as an absolutely free market, despite what the right-wing says. We give subsidies to industries. We enter into trade agreements. We don’t allow people to steal from others and sell it. We enforce contracts. We collect taxes. All of these are free market constraints. To add one more and make processed, junk and fast food advertisers run warnings on their TV commercials seems like a no-brainer.