Legal Actions Temper Junk Food Ads Aimed at Kids
> 6/14/2007 1:21:34 PM

In the face of pending legal challenges, some of the biggest offenders in the kids' junk food promotion market have made promises to cut back on these ads and offer the children who buy their products more reminders to eat healthy in their packaging, TV shows and websites. Unfortunately, these claims ring hollow in the absence of strict regulatory measures, and one cannot help but view their slow-moving incentives with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Kellogg produces countless varieties of packaged salt and sugar in the form of cartoon-themed cereals, waffles and artery-clogging pastries. More than one year after being hit with a potential lawsuit from concerned parents and advocacy organizations who allege false or misleading advertising practices, they have finally announced plans to alter their advertising schemes in order to, supposedly, temper the subversive "junk food is ok" message so often aimed at their target market: children readily swayed to ignore their parent's dietary advice in choosing the sweetest, saltiest, most convenient foods. Kellogg specifically promises to stop advertising foods to kids under 12 unless they meet established nutritional requirements involving salt, sugar and fat content. They also plan to stop using licensed characters in ads and packaging unless the foods in question meet those same guidelines. Plaintiffs have been impressed with the changes, dropping the lawsuit which, they claim, was always about monitoring our children's health rather than reaping the potential monetary windfall.

On the one hand, Kellogg has acted in a way that vaguely resembles responsibility (if only in the face of a legal and financial disaster), but on closer inspection their reforms constitute little beyond baby steps toward an unreachable goal: "Cocoa Krispies cereal would not qualify because one serving has 14 grams of sugar. But Kellogg could still advertise Frosted Flakes to children because it has 11 grams of sugar." Reducing the sugar content of a cereal by 1 gram per serving or supplementing it with vitamins hardly makes it healthy. They've also promised to place Nutrition at a Glance labels on the tops of their cereal boxes, making dietary summaries briefer and easier to assess. But children don't read these warnings, and most of their parents don't either. Companies such as Kraft, Disney and McDonald's have recently made similar committments to little effect.

Nickelodeon, whose TV shows, magazines and websites constitute one of the world's major sources of entertainment for children 13 and under, owns an equal, if not greater, share of the responsibility. A new study forwarded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that: "of 168 ads for food that appeared on Nickelodeon during CSPI’s review, 88 percent were for foods of poor nutritional quality." The network's pathetic response was to claim that 10% of its ads are for healthy products and that it has worked with its associated companies "to market foods like carrots, peaches, plums and nectarines." Hmmm. We'll believe it when we see Dora the Explorer brand mangoes.

One could make the argument that kids, when given a choice, will usually pick the least healthy option anyway. But even if demonstrably true, that observation does not absolve Nickelodeon of responsibility. They are not yet facing the same legal challenges as those leveled against Kellogg, but, based on the small successes borne of the former suit, legislation may be coming in the near future. Such a lawsuit would be quite an undertaking, but any move toward change would more than make up for it. Still, one shouldn't overstate the recent victory. While forcing these companies out of their absolute refusal to address public health concerns is a major development, none of their subsequent actions sound like significant change to us.

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