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Selling Bad Diets to Kids

Advertising To Children

Advertisers use movie stars and sports heroes to pitch their products — everything from Jimmy Dean Sausages to (Paul) Newman’s Own salad dressing. In fact, the Newman’s Own line bears the slogan, “Shameless exploitation in pursuit of the common good.” The strategy works. If we like the pitchman, we buy the product. Apparently the same phenomenon holds true for young children and food, except it’s not celebrities who make the food special to them. It’s cartoon characters. A new study by the Rudd Foundation at Yale University (which supports the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity) showed that kids between four and six years of age actually think that food packaged with images of popular cartoon characters tastes better.

The food industry spends $1.6 billion per year advertising directly to children. The bulk of that money goes to tout sugary cereals, fatty foods, fast foods, and calorie- and salt-laden snacks. A 2009 study showed that children’s networks exposed their little viewers to 76 percent more food advertising per hour than “adult” networks. According to a Science Daily article about that study, “Only one nutrition-related public service announcement was found for every 63 food ads.”

The study followed 40 children aged four to six in New Haven, Connecticut.  First, the researchers queried the children’s parents about how much TV the kids watched. Then, they gave the kids two packages containing identical snacks. The only difference was that one of the packages had a sticker with a picture of one of three cartoon characters: Scoobie Doo, Dora the Explorer, or Shrek. The experiment was repeated three times with a different snack each time — first Gummi Fruit, then graham cracker sticks, and finally baby organic carrots. The kids were to tell the experimenters whether the snacks tasted the same or different, and if different, which one tasted better. They were asked to rate the snack telling whether they loved it, liked it, disliked it, hated it.

According to the kids, Scoobie Doo graham crackers taste way better than plain ones. In each case, more kids preferred the taste of the cartoon-character-bearing snacks.  This was even true with the organic baby carrots, although less so than with the sugary treats.

Clearly if you’re concerned about the obesity epidemic among today’s children, this should be a major concern. The study proved that the advertising really works (of course, that’s no surprise to the food companies) and encourages kids to eat junk, which combined with inactivity and other factors, contributes to obesity and sets kids up to have heart problems diabetes, and other adult diseases increasingly common among children. The Rudd research verified for the general public that all that advertising money aimed at our kids is no fluke and plays an important role in this terrible cycle.

For years, consumer groups have been clamoring to regulate or restrict advertising aimed at children.  In 2008, a study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) concluded that banning advertising aimed at kids could reduce obesity by 18 percent among children aged three to 11 years of age, and by 14 percent among tweens and teens, aged 12 to 18. Interestingly, the study pointed out that the advertising costs are tax deductible for the companies that push their products at kids — which, unless you sit on the board of Kellogg’s, seems to stretch the bounds of reason. These deductions act as a sort of subsidy for that advertising, because if those costs were not tax deductible, food companies’ advertising to children would decrease by over 50 percent based on the same budget.

But the commercial assault does not end with what kids see on TV. Another Yale study showed that cross promotions in supermarkets aimed at kids and teens — in other words, associating movies, cartoon characters, sports and movie stars and the like with a product to the mutual benefit of both — increased by 78 percent from 2006 to 2008. Of the products investigated, only 18 percent met anything like nutritious food standards for kids.

What’s interesting about this is that in 2006, the Council of the Better Business Bureaus launched the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.  The initiative set voluntary advertising guidelines to help companies that advertise self regulate and shift “the mix of advertising messaging directed to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” The initiative called for 50 percent of advertisements aimed at kids under 12 to promote better dietary choices. Companies that signed on included “Burger King Corp.; Cadbury Adams, USA, LLC; Campbell Soup Company; The Coca-Cola Company; ConAgra Foods, Inc.; The Dannon Company; General Mills, Inc.; The Hershey Company; Kellogg Company; Kraft Foods Inc.; Mars, Inc.; McDonald’s USA; Nestlé USA; PepsiCo, Inc.; and Unilever United States.” The initiative largely focused on TV and internet advertising, but also covered advertising in elementary schools (yes, companies have even found ways to make elementary schools complicit) and in interactive games. And we can all see how effective that initiative has been over the last four years!!

The increased emphasis on supermarket promotions may simply have been the result of these companies moving their advertising clout from TV to store floor, perhaps because the Children’s Food And Beverage Advertising Initiative neglected to regulate stores as stringently. According to Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, Director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center, “The marketing of foods with low nutritional value to children in grocery stores should raise as much concern as it does on television or the internet. Foods with promotions targeted at children contained significantly more sugar than foods targeted at other age groups, and companies who have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to kids are the biggest offenders.”

As the old ExLax TV ad said, “What’s a mother to do?” Here’s an idea: if you can’t beat them, join them. Try buying kids’ dinnerware with their favorite cartoon characters imprinted on them.