The Kids Might Just Be Alright
> 12/7/2005 10:52:59 AM

A congressional panel convened to examine the link between advertising and children's eating habits released its findings yesterday.  There were few surprises. 

Kids are getting fatter, that's not news. The rate of obesity for people between 6 and 19 has tripled over the last 40 years.  These weight problems increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, asthma and numerous other health issues

The blame for this epidemic, at least a large proportion of it, must be placed squarely on advertisers and producers of unhealthy children's foods, the panel resoundingly concluded. According to their statistics the number of food products marketed toward children has multiplied by a factor of ten over the last ten years, a jump from 54 to well over 500.  From Fruit Loops to Hi-C to Push-Up Pops, these foods very rarely contain much nutritional value and pack an ungodly amount of calories. 

The real problem, according to the panel, is the manner in which these items are marketed.  Programming aimed at children is nearly ubiquitous these days.  They have cable channels and websites all their own.  Movie theaters often seem a virtual playground, cluttered with Chicken Little (or whatever the new half-baked children's film is) paraphernalia.  And with each new film or popular TV show comes a new set of McDonalds Happy Meal toys or cereal box covers that must be purchased, and whose related food products must be relished. 

The AP, reporting the panel's findings, quotes Sen. Harkin:
These likeable, kid-friendly characters are "being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who requested the report.

Beyond the use of these characters, marketing to children has crossed media and permeated to the core of what it means to be a child.
The panel said marketing has grown more sophisticated, evolving beyond TV commercials to Internet games, coupons and store events, placement in supermarkets and organized word-of-mouth campaigns.
As the AP points out, placement of children's products like sugar cereals on supermarket shelves has been an especially brutal battle.  The evidence is overwhelming that having a product at a child's eye level increases its attractiveness, so corporations pay exorbitant sums to make sure that their smiling cartoon character is meeting children face to face.

The members of the panel painted a dire picture for the state of healthy eating:
The panel said the government should try tax breaks and other incentives to encourage the shift away from junk food and, if that doesn't work, Congress should mandate it.
One member even went a step further:
"I don't think that even the best social marketing on healthy foods can overcome the advertising and sale of breakfast cereals that taste like cookies," said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families.

There are voices, however, on the other side of the argument.  The Grocery Manufacturers Association was represented in the AP article:
"The growth in the food and beverage industry is in healthier foods," said Richard Martin, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "There's been a sea change in the last couple of years, and I don't think that's very well-reflected in this report."

Dr. Mada Hapworth, a contributor to The Psychology of Combating Stress, Depression and Addiction, echoed Martin's comments.  "The most important thing in any field is to recognize that you have a problem, and the U.S. has become aware that we have an eating problem.  In terms of science, we're on the right track.  We're learning a lot more about digestion and the chemicals in the brain that control eating." 

Dr. Hapworth also sees changes in our eating habits coming from a more unlikely place: our culture.  "Culture is definitely becoming more and more visual, and that visual culture is making us more health conscious."  She added that by and large, people are more aware of appearances and that awareness leads to more conscious decision making about food.

In this new crusade against children's food a lesson might be learned from the backlash against McDonalds following Morgan Spurlock's successful documentary Super Size Me. There was a lot of public out cry about McDonalds' marketing practices as well as their food offerings.  This consumer backlash led to, *gasp*, changes in McDonalds business practices toward promoting a healthier lifestyle and making  sure consumers are aware of the nutritional information of the products.   This shift can be seen even on McDonalds' corporate website where a whole panel is dedicated to "Food & Nutrition," and  one might encounter phrases like "Balanced Active Lifestyles."

Now, I'm not ready to hand McDonald's an award yet, but this is an example of how the public can enact changes in the practices of corporations.  Members of the congressional panel that examined the issue have suggested that it is the government's job to place restrictions on the way that these potentially harmful foods can be marketed. But as Dr. Hapworth points out, government restrictions are not the way to go. 

"Dietary theories have changed so dramatically over the years.  First the key to a healthy diet was protein, then it was low fat. Now they are talking about putting fat back into the diet," she noted.  "Scientists are constantly learning new things, and government just moves much too slowly."

While some of their recommendations might be unnecessary, the conclusions of the congressional panel are important to keep in mind because they illustrate the pull that advertisers can use on children.  In the end however, there is nothing inherently more evil about using SpongeBob to sell Fruit-Roll-Ups than there is about using Tom Brady to sell Pepsi Cola. What the government can do is make sure that these corporations don't slide down the slippery slope of advertising into out right lying about the health benefits of their products.  Many cereals, especially the high sugar varieties, seem already to be flirting with this line. 

As long as marketing is honest, the power is in the hands of parents, as the primary consumers, to control the eating habits of their children.  Corporations may be trying to engender sugar addiction in children, but just because Dora the Explorer is on the shiny box of fruit snacks doesn't mean that your child needs those fruit snacks.  Change in the childhood obesity epidemic must come from the home, with smart eating habits taught by parents and guardians.  If consumers shift the market, then producers of children's foods will be forced to change their practices.  It worked with McDonalds, why not here?

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