Junkfood Science: Who needs science and facts when you can just hire a public relations firm?

November 28, 2008

Who needs science and facts when you can just hire a public relations firm?

A new computer game for children, ages 10 to 14, is already being called the autopsy game. Its goal is to scare children about their food and health, and teach them that if they eat bad foods — ‘red light’ foods with fats, sugar and salt — they could die before their parents and get fatal diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

The goal of the game, called Yoobot, is said to be to get kids to realize that their food and lifestyle choices can have dire consequences and that they are “playing with their futures.”

To play, children create an online avatar that looks like themselves and then see their bodies decay as a result of their food and exercise choices. Kids must give their email addresses because the game isn’t just active while they’re online — Yoobot emails and text messages them throughout the day wanting to be fed or telling them its sick. The game uses a “time warp” accelerated ageing process, with one human day equivalent to three Yoobot years, and a decay curve feature to show kids what they'll look like in old age. Left to its own devices, the Yoobot will eat ‘junkfood’ all day. When the Yoobot dies, kids perform an autopsy to find out how junkfood and sedentary behavior supposedly killed it [and them].

Scaring children called educational

Yoobot was released yesterday by the British Heart Foundation, along with results of a survey that ostensibly supported the need for its new Food4Thought healthy lifestyle campaign directed towards children — or more accurately, its traffic light food labeling legislative lobbying. Both the game and campaign were created for BHF by the PR firm Grey London.

Jon Williams, chief creative officer of Grey London said: “The medium of gaming is the perfect way to show kids who think they're immortal, that the choices they make now will catch up with them eventually.”

Mike Knapton, BHF director of prevention and care, told BBC news:

Today's junk food generation can't see beyond the burger box. They are missing the fact that eating unhealthily can have dire consequences on their long-term health. The Yoobot is an innovative way for children to explore the effects of eating a diet of junk food. The clock is ticking on the obesity time bomb and it is now more important than ever for children to be educated enough to take control of their diets.

According to the game’s welcome page, children “should” become familiar with the nutritional content of foods and the “implications of each choice” they make. By “allowing children to watch the future unfold before their eyes,” the game says, “it is hoped the game will show them the relevance of the food and lifestyle choices they make now and encourage them to make healthier choices from an early age.” Yoobot admits it exaggerates its dire claims to heighten the impact on kids:

[I]n order to clearly link certain actions with health implications we have exaggerated reality in order to emphasise the key points we would like users to understand. We have also had to simplify risk factors for heart disease, and to some extent alter the progression of the process of heart disease in order to not dilute the message of healthy eating and physical activity.

One sentence later it says: “Overall, the British Heart Foundation has endeavoured to make Yoobot an engaging and scientifically based educational tool.”

It turns out, the source of the claims used by BHF is the Foresight Report. This Orwellian report had even acknowledged that there is no sound medical or nutritional evidence for any of its claims or that any of its proposed tactics are healthful, effective or safe for growing children. Never the less, this game is being marketed as an educational tool. New Media Age reports that the game will be “supported by advertising across kids sites such as CITV, Bebo, Disney and Cartoon Network, a TV ad campaign co-created with Nickelodeon, and a leaflet campaign to 4,000 schools.”

For the game’s launch, BHF issued a press release with the results of a marketing survey its PR firm conducted. The press release has been picked up verbatim by media across UK. News stories have been reporting that most children are unaware that junkfood is dangerous and has devastating health effects. The BHF online poll of 1,100 UK children, 8- to 15-years old, reportedly found that more than seven out of ten children don’t “know” that eating bad foods can shorten their lives.

More accurately, 76% of kids had the right answer, which is now the wrong answer. There is absolutely no credible science that children’s diets are shortening their lives or causing them to develop adult diseases. There is no credible scientific support for traffic light claims that low-fat, low-sugar, low-salt foods define healthier foods for youngsters, prevent heart disease or obesity, or lead to longer lives. [Background on traffic lights: here, here, here, here, here and here.]

No credible research supports any beneficial effects for negative food and health messages for children, or that threatening and scaring them, especially with unfounded scares about perfectly safe food, is good for them and doesn’t put their welfare at greater risk.

And the results of a poll certainly aren’t credible scientific evidence to support any health intervention.

In fact, the BHF poll suggests that food scares are already having detrimental effects on young children and leading to disordered relationships with food. A quarter of the youngsters believed “bad” foods will shorten their lives. And nearly half of the kids polled said they believed that if they ate ‘junkfood,’ it would make them fat and unpopular, cause their teeth to decay and their skin to break out.

“For the children”

In any other situation, preying on children using threats of death, and trying to scare them about some unsubstantiated fear would be seen as wrong. Children are protected and their welfare is safeguarded. Few parents want their children to be used to advance political ideologies or commercial agendas, either. Yet this specious public health campaign targeting children is going to be marketed on children’s television and in public schools.

Not only that, the Food4Thought campaign is backed by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY), Patricia Lewsley. NICCY is the agency tasked to protect children’s rights there. It receives complaints and concerns from children, parents or carers on any issue. “So far, we have had cases dealing with education, health, adoption, fostering, youth justice, road safety and bullying,” its literature says. “NICCY can also examine services if we think they are not good enough for children or that they harm children.”

The best interests of children are abandoned when it comes to the current obsession among public health officials over children’s diets and the readiness of special interests to capitalize on a sham health crisis. Who needs science or evidence, when you can popularize beliefs by hiring an advertising agency and issuing a press release?

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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