A Commercial-Free Childhood

It's hard to say what is the most disturbing thing about the new report by the National Institute of Medicine linking television advertising and the rise of childhood obesity. Perhaps it's everyone's surprise in the first place that snack food companies aren't just promoting healthier food of their own accord, out of their glowing hearts.

Or perhaps it's that despite all the common sense, it takes this major study to tell people what they should have been able to figure out all along: fried foods -- high in fat, sugar, and salt -- aren't good for kids, even if old SpongeBob is promoting them. Kids don't know this, but parents should.

But this should be old news. A 1996 British study asked children to recognize different foods. The top ten foods kids were most familiar with (out of 500) were:


  • Chips
  • Pizza
  • Apple
  • Fish
  • Sausage
  • Chicken
  • French Fries
  • Chocolate
  • Beans
  • and
  • Ice cream


People used to say that this was a problem about poverty--that in many poor neighborhoods you couldn't find a piece of affordable fresh produce if you paid somebody but there was a McDonald's on every corner. That's still true, except that now McDonald's is our health food store as well, buying more apples, tomatoes, and lettuce than any other company in the country, including grocery chains.

In another effort to be more "healthful," McDonald's has also changed the packaging on its children's milk cartons to attractive little plastic jugs, which have doubled its milk sales. Well, I guess if we have to pick between the environment and profits, er, I mean the health of children, we'll pick the children every time.

Apparently, other companies aren't following McDonald's lead. Kraft and Kellog, for example, despite many entreaties from the Children's Advertising Review Unit, the industry's self-regulatory arm, are still using their popular cartoon characters to sell Pop Tarts, sugar cereal, and the like.

Of course Kraft and Kellogaren't going to change on their own. As Senator Tom Harkin said: "The food industry doesn't spend $10 billion a year on ads to kids because they like to waste money. Their ads not only work, they work brilliantly."

So the Institute of Medicine has its science right, but not its recommendations. They'd like to see cartoon characters hawking healthier food. If the junk food industry won't do that in their own, the Institute of Health threatens recommending "legislative action" in two years. First, why wait two years? Second, legislative action to protect consumers is not, alas, what this goverment is all about. Of course the 2006 elections could change that (hint, hint voters).

But mainly, I don't think cartoon characters should be hawking anything at all. Many kids first words are now advertisements and before they're two years old, most children know to request things by brand names. By the time they enter first grade, most kids can name 200 brands. (LINK). Every half-second, somewhere in the world another Barbie is sold. That's why I'm such a fan of the Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood. They support the rights of children to grow up – and the rights of parents to raise them – without being undermined by rampant consumerism. That's got to be good for your, and your kids, physical and mental health.

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