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Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children

Marketers spend billions attracting kids to junk food they hope will become a lifelong brand attachment. But the effect on kids' health can be costly.

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Marketers use sophisticated child psychology to help children leverage "pester power," effectively nagging their parents to buy them the desired item (and often playing on parents' guilt for not having enough time to spend with their children). According to the Center for a New American Dream, brand loyalty can be established as early as age 2 -- loyalty that lasts a lifetime. A study of Americans' perception of the U.S. food system commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation found that Americans create an emotional link to food companies as nurturers early in their lives, and thus thinking critically about problems with food companies "can violate people's deep desire to be secure." Food marketers know this well, understanding the amount of money at stake not only from parents' purchases influenced by children or purchases by children themselves, but also brand loyalty throughout each child's entire life.

The link between watching TV and childhood obesity has long been known, but a recent study found the link is directly related to commercials for unhealthy food; watching TV with commercials was linked with obesity but watching DVDs or educational programming without commercials had no effect on children's waistlines. So, last spring Congress directed the Executive Branch (specifically the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission) to write a report providing recommended guidelines for food marketing to children by July 15, 2010. They presented their work at a forum held by the Federal Trade Commission at the halfway point, on December 15, 2009.

With the prevailing deregulatory environment of the past several decades, the government largely relies on "self-regulation" to guarantee ethics in marketing to children. Those who market to children do this through the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Companies that participate in the initiative pledge to shift at least 50 percent of their advertising directed at children under 12 to encourage "better for you" choices. Unfortunately, foods that are "better for you" than junk are often themselves mostly junk, just slightly less so. Food marketers also self-regulate through their notoriously lax police arm, the Children's Advertising Review Unit (organized by the major advertising industry trade associations), which recommends companies reform their ads when they go over the line in advertising to kids.

To see how well self-regulation was working, the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity examined children's breakfast cereals, as the majority of major cereal companies are part of the self-regulation initiative. They found that breakfast cereals marketed to children are, on average, the least healthy cereals available. Specifically, they contain 85 percent more sugar, 65 percent less fiber and 60 percent more sodium than adult cereals. The cereals marketed to children are so unhealthy, in fact, that the United Kingdom would not allow any of them to advertise to children on television. (The United Kingdom prohibits using traditional media to market food high in fat, salt or sugar to children.) Self-regulation of marketing to children ignores the question of whether children should be the targets of marketing at all. Even if one were to accept the premise of self-regulation (that some marketing to kids is okay, so long as a certain percent of the products are healthy), it is still a failure.

It was at this point that the government stepped in to write its report to Congress, which will make non-binding recommendations for nutrition standards of food marketed to children ages 2-17. In other words, the government assumes that so long as a product is healthy enough, marketing it to a child as young as 2 is acceptable. But even trying to set the bounds for self-regulation has been difficult. In its December presentation, the government group set the preliminary nutrition guidelines that a food marketed to children should meet. First, it laid out one category of healthy foods that companies are always allowed to market to children. Those include 100-percent fruits or fruit juices, 100-percent vegetables or vegetable juices (that don't exceed 140mg of sodium per serving), 100-percent nonfat or low-fat milk, yogurt, 100-percent whole grain products and 100-percent water.

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