From Too Little to Too Much: A Short History of the Representations of the Risks Associated with Children’s Food in Advertising
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From Too Little to Too Much:
A Short History of the Representations of the Risks Associated with Children’s Food in Advertising

As studies in the sociology of risk have shown,1 the experience of risk and danger pervades social life in Western society. Childhood and food are at the center of contemporary social concerns and have catalyzed current debate on such questions as the dangers of obesity, for example.2 Young children, because they are still growing, have not yet reached the age of legal responsibility, are classed as junior members of society, and have frequently been associated with that dangerous state of living on the edge, which puts them at risk and means that they need to be protected.3 Food products, for their part, also have an ambiguous status: they are just as much “an indispensable source of pleasure and an element of socialization as a potential source of danger and disease.”4 Food consumption practice has always been considered a risk-taking activity and, particularly in times of crisis, has given rise to fears, rumors, and even panic.5

Sociological and anthropological approaches to studies on risk have shown that the notion of risk is always linked to the social6 and cultural7 contexts in which it is produced. “Risk objects”8—that is, objects, actions or situations perceived and defined as risky or harmful to some degree or another, or as having negative, dangerous consequences—are not static, objective, stable entities. Rather, they are phenomena constantly being constructed and negotiated as elements of a network of social interactions. From this perspective, the determinants of the construction of the social reality of risk are those rhetorical processes at work in debates and discussions held in specialist publications and the public forum on such subjects as the identification of causes and sources of risk. Media discourse thus plays a determining role not only in the perception of risk, but also in the construction and social representation of risk (e.g., the risks linked with food, as studies of the media construction of the mad cow disease affair have shown).9

According to historical studies, since the Middle Ages, food consumption practice has been subject to the influence of three players:10 the Church, the State, and expert medical knowledge. All through the twentieth century, with their authority for establishing causal relationships between objects, behavioral practice, and problems, specialists and professionals in the health sector occupied a central place in defining food-related risks. Historically, since the nineteenth century, the system of values and cultural significance associated with food-consumption practice has been mediated through the discourse of the food-producing industry, which thus has the function of relaying knowledge (expert or not), professional advice, and commonly held opinion and beliefs. Advertising discourse on products typically draws on information gathered through monitoring consumers’ expectations and choices; in doing so, it tends towards the ritualized, reads like a register, an archive of values and social norms in a given historical context. As Roland Barthes says, advertising is “a privileged means for isolating those situations and themes to which food significations refer.”11

Advertising discourse is one of the agents that at one and the same time contribute to reinforcing current beliefs and aim to guide mothers—the assumed and targeted readers of the messages—in the identification of objects, behavior, and situations they should consider risky. It does this very often through strategies based on fear appeals: this consists in presenting hazards individuals would expose themselves to if they acted in the way stigmatized by the advertisements or if they chose not to use the products recommended.12 The advertisements typically include illustrations, interviews, factual information, testimonies, and the authority of professionals and experts to support both the legitimacy of the claims and the reality and seriousness of the risk involved. The presentation of threats is designed to give rise to uncomfortable, negative emotions that the reader of the message would normally want to free himself of for the sake of his psychological well-being.13 Fear appeals thus help focus attention, promote awareness of risk, and assist in identifying the source, the risk...