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Obesity and Food Marketing to Children

posted on Fri, Apr 15 2011 1:35 pm by Julie Ralston Aoki

Food Marketing to Children
Most people don’t dispute that we have an obesity problem in this country. Where there is disagreement - in some cases, heated disagreement - is on what to do about it. Food and beverage marketing targeted at kids is one issue that generates a lot of heat.

One debate is about whether marketing really is to blame, or whether it’s parents who can’t say “no.”

The parental responsibility argument only goes so far. Many kids have their own buying power, as food marketers know. Harnessing “pester power” (a child’s ability to nag his or her  parents into buying something) is a powerful and exploitative marketing technique. Even the industry’s own self-regulatory  body (the Children’s Advertising Review Unit) advises marketers to avoid it.

Further, the science shows that food and beverage marketing contributes to unhealthy weights among children. There’s clear evidence that TV advertising influences children’s food and beverage preferences and purchase requests. But the impact goes beyond TV--recent studies show that cartoon characters and licensed characters on packaging can make food taste better to children. There’s also plenty of evidence that the foods most heavily marketed to children are those that are the unhealthiest. For example, a recent study of breakfast cereal marketing found that the cereals marketed specifically to children tended to be the ones with the lowest nutritional value. Add to this the fact that children as old as eight years old can’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising, and it’s not hard to see how marketing has contributed to the obesity train wreck.

But even beyond this science, is it reasonable for food and beverage companies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars targeting children with marketing, mostly for obesogenic foods, placed literally everywhere and anywhere a child might eat, study, or play, and then demand that parents run interference against them?

Whatever your answer, the “parental responsibility” argument continues to have extraordinary force. This becomes especially clear in the discussion of a new kind of local law - the brainchild of the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity - designed to mitigate the use of an effective, child-directed sales practice: combining “free” toys with kids’ meals in fast food restaurants. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), about 38 percent of meals served to kids in 2006 by fast food chain restaurants came with toys. Further, the FTC found that these chains spent $360 million to buy these toys (at an estimated $.40/toy), which is more than twice what they spent on all other child-directed marketing efforts. Clearly, these chains think toys are important for selling products aimed at kids.

The goal of this new kind of law is not to take the “happy” out of Happy Meals, as McDonald’s representatives lament, but rather to take the “hefty” out of the Happy Meal by requiring that this sales practice be used only with kids’ meals that meet scientific, kid-tailored, basic nutritional criteria. Surely, kids’ happiness and healthiness are not mutually exclusive?

Santa Clara County and San Francisco have passed such ordinances, and a New York City Council member recently proposed one. These measures have been criticized as limiting parents’ “choices,” or, somewhat paradoxically, pandering to irresponsible parents.

In fact, however, these laws limit the methods fast food restaurants can use to get between parents and their children. They certainly don’t prevent parents from buying French fries, or a gallon of soda or even a cheap, movie-themed toy for their kids. Indeed, fast food restaurants can still sell all of these items, and can even advertise them directly to your three-year-old. They just can’t use a toy to sell unhealthy kids’ meals.

The real concern seems to be not that these laws will limit choice, but that they will limit sales.

This information was developed by Julie Ralston Aoki, staff attorney at the Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell College of Law.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.
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