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Tough federal rules for children’s food ads best way to battle America’s growing bulge

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Susan Linn
July 12, 2008
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is addressing the question, Do we need a strong federal effort to combat the obesity pandemic?

Childhood obesity rates skyrocketed under more than 30 years of food industry self-regulation. They are now shockingly high.


Under mounting pressure from public health advocacy groups, the food industry has spearheaded several high-profile initiatives to address the childhood obesity epidemic and stave off government regulation of their $10 billion to $15 billion efforts to market junk food directly to children. Yet kids are still inundated with marketing for high-calorie foods of low nutritional value.


Food marketing works. In other words, junk-food marketing still abounds on television, in movies, on the Internet and in schools. After extensive reviews of the research, both the World Health Organization and the U.S. Institute of Medicine link child-targeted marketing to children’s food choices, preferences, requests and diets.


One 30-second commercial can influence the brand choices of children as young as 2. Branding might even trump sensory input. In a study conducted at Stanford University, preschoolers identified food packaged in McDonald’s wrappers as tasting better than food wrapped in plain wrappers.


Despite evidence of its culpability, the food industry—echoing Big Tobacco—initially stonewalled concerns that its unregulated marketing practices negatively affect public health.


Instead, to placate critics while preserving profits, companies launched programs to promote exercise, nutrition education, or both. By 2007, as public pressure mounted, many major food companies pledged to curb some of their child-targeted marketing.


One year later, it’s hard to see that much has changed. Consider a few flagrant examples:


—Ads for junk food can still be seen during children’s television programming. This summer’s blockbuster films such as “Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk” are promoting Burger King Kid Meals to children as young as 3.


—Children can still go “Boardwalk Bowling with Life Savers” at Wrigley’s candystand.com.


—Scholastic Inc. markets an M&M video game in elementary schools. In other words, junk-food marketing still abounds on television, on the Internet, in movies and in schools.


—McDonald’s pledged to stop marketing food and beverages in elementary schools. Yet it took a major effort by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, resulting in a slew of negative press, to persuade McDonald’s to end just one program in one Florida school district that was sending report cards home in envelopes advertising Happy Meals.


The new pledges reflect a problem endemic to self-regulation: more emphasis on “self” than “regulation.” The most glaring flaw is a lack of enforceable oversight.


In addition, individual pledges are tailored to fit each company’s product line, not objective criteria based on what’s best for children.


In aggregate, lack of uniformity makes the pledges hard, if not impossible, to monitor. And hypocrisy rules! Some companies pledged merely to continue policies they have instituted—and broken—for years.


Coca Cola’s “new” pledge reiterates earlier press releases stating that the company did not market to children younger than 12—never mind that a host of Coca Cola toys for children as young as 4 are still on the market and that Coke continues to be integrated into the television program “American Idol,” consistently a top-rated show for 2- to 11-year-olds.


Under Kellogg’s new guidelines, it is still permissible to market Frosted Flakes and Pop Tarts to children. Also, many pledges are designed to exploit the fact that marketing a brand is much more important than marketing a particular product.


While not selling cheeseburgers and fries directly, Ronald McDonald can promote the McDonald’s brand by visiting elementary schools under the guise of teaching everything from values to reading.


The best way to protect children from junk-food marketing is to have clear, uniform, legally enforceable rules established by an outside regulatory agency whose vested interest is in the well-being of children, rather than their bottom line.


When it comes to food marketing to children, it’s clearer than ever that self-regulation has failed. The federal government, not the food industry, should be the guardian of public health.


Susan Linn is the associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston and an instructor in psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. She is also director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of “The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.” Readers may write to her at Judge Baker Children’s Center, 53 Parker Hill Ave., Boston, MA 02120.

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