Legal Actions Aim to Temper Junk Food Ads Aimed at Kids
> 6/14/2007 2:59:05 PM

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

Kelloggproduces countless varieties of packaged salt and sugar in the form ofcartoon-themed cereals, waffles and artery-clogging pastries. More thanone 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 plansto alter their advertising schemes in order to, supposedly, temper thesubversive "junk food is ok" message so often aimed at their targetmarket: children readily swayed to ignore their parent's dietary advicein choosing the sweetest, saltiest, most convenient foods. Kelloggspecifically promises to stop advertising foods to kids under 12 unlessthey meet established nutritional requirements involving salt, sugarand fat content. They also plan to stop using licensed characters inads and packaging unless the foods in question meet those sameguidelines. Plaintiffs have been impressed with the changes, droppingthe lawsuit which, they claim, was always about monitoring ourchildren's health rather than reaping the potential monetary windfall.

Onthe one hand, Kellogg has acted in a way that vaguely resemblesresponsibility (if only in the face of a legal and financial disaster),but on closer inspection their reforms constitute little beyond babysteps toward an unreachable goal: "CocoaKrispies cereal would not qualify because one serving has 14 grams ofsugar. But Kellogg could still advertise Frosted Flakes to childrenbecause it has 11 grams of sugar." Reducing the sugar contentof a cereal by 1 gram per serving or supplementing it with vitaminshardly makes it healthy. They've also promised to place Nutrition at aGlance labels on the tops of their cereal boxes, making dietarysummaries briefer and easier to assess. But children don't read thesewarnings, and most of their parents don't either. Companies such asKraft, Disney and McDonald's have recently made similar committments tolittle effect.

Nickelodeon, whose TV shows, magazines andwebsites constitute one of the world's major sources of entertainmentfor 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: "of168 ads for food that appeared on Nickelodeon during CSPI’s review,88 percent were for foods of poor nutritional quality." Thenetwork's pathetic response was to claim that 10% of its ads are forhealthy 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.

Onecould make the argument that kids, when given a choice, will usuallypick the least healthy option anyway. But even if demonstrably true,that observation does not absolve Nickelodeon of responsibility. Theyare not yet facing the same legal challenges as those leveled againstKellogg, but, based on the small successes borne of the former suit,legislation may be coming in the near future. Such a lawsuit would bequite an undertaking, but any move toward change would more than makeup for it. Still, one shouldn't overstate the recent victory. Whileforcing these companies out of their absolute refusal to address publichealth concerns is a major development, none of their subsequentactions sound like significant change to us.

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