Fast Food Makers "Limit" Ads for Children, Expand Internet Presence
> 7/19/2007 12:36:54 PM

It would appear on first glance that fast-food producers have gotten the message. Following the legal, if not moral, capitualtion of the Kellogg corporation, a conglomerate of 11 major offenders in the childhood obesity wars have agreed to curtail marketing aimed at the under-12 contigency. In a move almost directly mirroring that taken by Kellogg, companies including Pepsi, Campbell's, General Mills and McDonalds have agreed to several self-imposed conditions, including the promise not to use licensed characters unless the foods they advertise fall within the acceptable nutritional framework based largely on salt and sugar content per serving. The participating companies account for nearly two-thirds of the food advertising children see on a daily basis, and FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majores thereby believes, for some reason, that this development constitutes a "very good step forward" in the one-sided battle over the health of the average American child.

Of course, the companies did not come to this conclusion by drawing from their bottomless well of compassion for the underaged consumer. The announcement immediately precedes an FTC hearing on how seriously their businesses compromise public health and what to (all but force them to) do about it. And one should take their word with a healthy dose of skepticism, as concurrent reports highlight efforts on the part of the very same companies' European wings to maneuver their way around their self-imposed guidelines through online advertising. The companies insist that the "games, videos and cartoons" available on their websites are strictly for fun and do not aim to familiarize children with the items on their respective menus. To further add to the dubious credibility of such statements, McDonald's defends their practice by insisting that their website clearly states that children under sixteen should "seek permission from an adult before entering the Kids Zone." To place this claim in its proper perspective, consider the fact that most pornographic websites also preface their sexual content with disclaimers asserting that viewers have claimed to be over eighteen by clicking on the Enter icon, thereby asbolving them of responsibility for the influence of the material contained therein. Whether the ages of viewers actually measure up is sadly irrelevant. It's clear to any impartial observer that McDonald's has resorted to less obvious advertising techniques in an attempt to avoid the very regulations to which they've pledged their compliance.

Public perception and legal threats can hardly sway the McD's juggernaut. While the idea of adults suing companies for inducing their own obesity is far-fetched, containing the aggressive advertising tactics of the fast food titans is not. Free market purists decry the suggestion as a blatant example of federal intrustion on the operations of a healthy economy and the erosion of public choice and personal responsibility, but they shouldn't get too worried: children and their parents would still be able to eat as many cheeseburgers as they would like regardless of restrictions on the advertising policies of the companies mass-producing them. Of course parents play a central role in either discouraging or reinforcing the unhealthy habits of their children. And they may be to blame for kids who don't seem to understand the concept of moderation in consumption. But the issue at the heart of this story is the same as that raised by the controversial Joe Camel ads, which were very obviously intended to counter teens' perceptions of smoking as a disgusting, deadly habit. While most eight-year olds will prefer the taste of cheesy corn puffs to that of raw spinach, curtailing the implication that their favorite fictional characters enjoy such fatty snacks and that they themselves should be able to eat them regularly without any consequences is a responsibility that falls to regulatory agencies.

Unfortunately, obesity rates only continue to rise, with estimates placing the number of overweight Americans at 75% by 2015. And the government's attempts to educate young people on the virtues of vegetables are largely wasted efforts: Last year a major federal pilot program offering free fruits and vegetables to school children showed fifth graders became less willing to eat them than they had at the start. Apparently they didn't like the taste. Perhaps we should wean our young on the sage advice of longtime fitness and bodybuilding guru Jack LaLanne: "If man made it, don't eat it." Nice statement of principle/pipe dream; too bad it will never work.

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