Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children

Personal Health

Seven-year-old Marley loves Happy Meals from McDonald's. She used to get Chicken McNuggets, but now she chooses a cheeseburger to go with her fries and Sprite. Her father, Patrick, is a chef, trained at the Culinary Institute of America, but Marley prefers McDonald's to his cooking. After a trip to McDonald's, Marley eagerly surfs onto, where she can enter a code from her meal to get a "behind-the-scenes look at iCarly," a kids' TV show (boys can use their code for a Star Wars promotion).

Patrick pulled the plug on his television a few months ago, in part to shield his two young daughters from advertising, but the McDonald's marketing execs have reached Marley all the same. Because he's health- and environmentally-conscious, Patrick does not take her to McDonald's often, but after a long day of school and extra-curricular activities, sometimes a little nagging is all it takes for Marley to convince her dad that she's hungry now and only food served at a drive-thru will do.

Marley and Patrick are normal, apart from his cooking skills and their home's lack of TV. Approximately one out of three fast food trips occur due to a child's nagging -- a fact that does not elude junk food marketers, who advertise to kids with the very goal of getting kids to nag their parents for the advertised product. It's not by accident that foods marketed to children come with toys or in boxes plastered with popular cartoon characters, located strategically at children's eye level. And today's generation is the target of more marketing and more types of marketing than their parents, who didn't grow up with the Internet, iPods or cell phones.

Instead of TV commercials that can be ignored or muted, marketers now know how to create promotional content that viewers pay more attention to. For example, a Kraft Web site challenges consumers to "send a custom video to your friends to show how much you love KD [Kraft Dinner]." And just in case no one has sent you such a video, you can waste hours viewing the "Gallery" of videos submitted by others. Kids today can log onto numerous commercial Web sites and create avatars, play with virtual pets and interact with their favorite movie, comic book and TV characters.

On the McDonald's site alone, they can connect with their friends, enter contests, download coupons for McDonald's products, play interactive games and provide McDonald's with valuable market research by saving their favorite activities in a customized profile and even voting on the name of new products or marketing tools. With mobile applications, kids can take their virtual world with them wherever they go.

Yet children Marley's age (up to about age 8) do not understand advertising's persuasive intent, and very young children cannot even distinguish between commercials and program content, according to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Even after a child can understand an ad's intent, he or she still might lack the judgment to determine the consequences of buying the product, and the ad still undermines the judgment of his or her parents by appealing directly to the kid. So why is marketing to kids allowed at all?

The U.S. government is currently looking at food marketing to children. Food isn't the only product marketed to kids, but food marketing is under more scrutiny than other marketing as politicians, health care providers and others look to uncover the causes of the current childhood obesity epidemic. In 2006, food companies spent $1.6 billion marketing products -- mostly soda, fast food and cereal -- to kids. That same year, fast food restaurants sold more than 1.2 billion kids' meals with toys.

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.

If a food does not fall into that category, it must meet two other criteria. In short, it must contain enough healthy stuff and not too much unhealthy stuff in order to qualify. At the halfway point, they were still unsure how this would work. The first part requires that food marketed to children contain a certain amount of food within the government-recognized "healthy" food groups (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat free or low-fat milk, yogurt, extra-lean meat or poultry, eggs or nuts). The second part limits specific nutrients such as saturated fat, trans fat, sugars and sodium. This would ensure that a food like potato chips (which contains a considerable amount of potatoes, a vegetable) would not qualify if it contained high levels of saturated fat or sodium.

As of the December presentation, the government group working on the report still had a number of questions. For example, should they split their nutrition guidelines into two age tiers based on the different nutritional needs of teens (ages 12-17) and children (ages 2-11)? They were also unsure how to handle advertising of entire brands or restaurant chains that sold a broad range of food (perhaps some that meets the nutrition guidelines and some that does not). They also wondered how to adjust the traditional government recommendations for a 2000-calorie diet for children, since children eat less than adults and require fewer calories. Last, they feared that their standards would provide incentives for manufacturers to reformulate foods in ways that would qualify them to market to children without actually improving the foods' nutritional quality (for example, by replacing sugar with Splenda).

Even if they manage to come up with workable solutions to these questions, they're still left grappling with the most important questions: Can food marketing to kids ever be done in a benign way? Should McDonald's receive permission to market its apple slices and milk to children in order to lure them in the restaurant's door? Or should a company run ads for its reduced sugar or whole grain version of a product with an almost identical name to the less healthy version of the same product? And how can government nutrition standards account for portion size when they don't know if a food will be eaten as a meal or as a snack, or by a 2-year-old or an 11-year-old?

Even if a food is truly healthy, Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, says, "If a child [under age 8] cannot comprehend the ad's persuasive intent, it is immoral to advertise anything to that child." Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, adds that children should not learn to choose foods based on clever ads or packaging featuring their favorite cartoon characters. Instead, they should learn to select food that is tasty or healthy. Thus, even a box of fruit sold with a popular cartoon character on its packaging sends the wrong message.

Despite these obvious problems, the government still accepts marketing to children as a fact of life that won't change in the near future, and one of the speakers at the recent Federal Trade Commission forum actually thanked advertisers for sponsoring decades of quality children's television programming (as shows are supported by their advertising dollars, without which the shows can't exist). The group presenting at the forum made clear that they were not proposing regulations, only non-binding recommendations, and they strongly encouraged all businesses marketing to children to join the Council of Better Business Bureaus' self-regulatory initiative. In other words, even though the government has the clear authority to pass binding regulations to curb marketing to children, they plan to just politely request that companies refrain from marketing the worst junk to kids as they continue their love affair with self-regulation.

With the government either unwilling or unable to curb food marketing to children, parents have a number of choices. They can restrict TV and internet use by limiting the amount of a child's screen time, by designating certain shows or Web sites off-limits, or even by getting rid of their TVs altogether. Still, children will likely view marketing content at a friend's house or even at school. (Until 2008, it wasn't unheard of for children's report cards to sport the Golden Arches, offering a free Happy Meal to elementary school children with good grades. McDonald's ended the program when it received negative press attention.) Other parents set rules that the family must discuss and deconstruct each TV commercial as they watch TV, or that the answer is "No" for any product a child requests that was advertised on TV.

Parents can also support the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which does excellent work in exposing issues with advertising to children and even forcing advertisers to change. Unfortunately, despite the Obama administration's admirable work combating childhood obesity, moving beyond the failed policy of industry self-regulation of marketing to children does not seem forthcoming.

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