THE BLOG
02/26/2013 09:55 am ET Updated Apr 28, 2013

The Real Battlefront for Child Obesity

The highly anticipated new book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us hits the shelves on Tuesday, the latest salvo in the war against obesity. Author Michael Moss, a New York Times reporter, reveals that American packaged food corporations have consciously engineered addictive junk foods and have marketed them with abandon to "extremely vulnerable" populations, including children.

Quoting the former president and COO of Coca-Cola's North and South American operations, Moss divulges a dirty little secret: "The selling of food matters as much as the food itself." As a parent and professor of advertising, I know firsthand that deceptive sales tactics are the real battlefront. Advertisers use stealth weapons -- sophisticated new forms of digital advertising combined with manipulative strategies -- that are calculated to draw children into personal relationships with food brands. Parents must understand the psychology behind food-related advertising to children, get wise to current formats, and initiate consumer action.

Let's start with the fact that the ads use persuasive approaches that are inherently unfair. Tufts University nutrition researchers analyzed food ads directed to kids to determine which qualities marketers pair with food products to make them desirable. Turns out, a generation of kids has been taught that food is fun, rather than fuel.

"Once you pop, the fun don't stop." That's what Pringles canned potato chips would like your child to believe. The most common advertising strategies associate food with fun and good times. being popular with peers, feeling happy, and achieving greater athletic ability. Product names often extend these appeals, as in Oreo's Fun Stix cookies and McDonald's Happy Meal. Ads for Skittles candy urge kids to "taste the rainbow." Hershey's Kisses promise "a lot of happiness in a little drop" and their chocolate syrup is a sure way to "stir up a smile." Younger children lack the ability to understand the advertiser's intent in pairing food with happiness, and even older kids with greater cognitive defenses are susceptible to emotion-laden appeals.

Add a celebrity endorsement, and now you've got a kid-directed food ad on steroids. Nickelodeon's tween heartthrob boy band Big Time Rush starred in a 2012 television commercial for Airheads that showed the singers devouring candy before the start of a fan-packed concert. The campaign included a sweepstakes with a grand prize trip to Hollywood to meet the band. To enter, kids visited an Airheads website replete with branded content. Using teen superstars to draw in child consumers is not new; Britney Spears declared her allegiance to Pepsi in a series of television commercials circa 2001. Today, that arrangement seems quaint compared to Beyonce's new $50 million multimedia advertising deal with the soda giant, which includes her face on the can.

Our kids grow up in this culture of celebrity worship, so it's no wonder that tweens and teens are attracted to ads featuring their favorite stars. In her book Branded, journalist Alissa Quart notes that buying the products that celebrities endorse is a tangible way for kids to feel connected. Reality television and social media keep us tethered to every Kardashian purchase and Kutcher tweet, and food marketers seize these opportunities. Carl's Jr. fast food restaurant knows that commercials and social media promotions featuring teen idols Paris Hilton, Audrina Patridge (The Hills) and Kim Kardashian are good for the corporate bottom line, but they certainly are not helping the collective teen waistline. Nutrition expert Marion Nestle calls Beyonce's deal unethical because Pepsi targets low-income, minority children who suffer higher rates of obesity. How better to bond kids to the brand than by associating with Knowles, and by extension, Jay-Z, beloved aspirational figures?

Celebrity partnerships make it far too easy for food marketers to leverage the phenomenal power of social media. During the Super Bowl, M&Ms candy debuted a commercial starring Naya Rivera from the tween/teen blockbuster, Glee. "So I may be biased but the Super Bowl was definitely #betterwithmms if you thought so too, vote here!" Rivera tweeted to her more than 1 million followers. The voting link redirected users to the M&Ms Chocolate Channel on YouTube, featuring ads and branded content. M&Ms ran the extended version of the commercial during the next Glee episode, which Rivera also tweeted.

These online interactions inevitably land kids on manufacturers' product websites where they encounter advergames, free online games starring brands. A 2012 study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale reveals that 1.2 million children visit packaged food advergaming sites every month. At the Pop Tarts website, kids can play eight games featuring animated frosted treats. At the M&M website, they can decorate a Nascar-style race car with M&M logos, and sign up to follow the M&Ms characters on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and FourSquare. Marketers use games to establish an affinity for the brand, resulting in constant contact, purchase requests and likely, pounds. According to the Rudd study, games featuring candy and other non-nutritious food stimulate kids' appetites for unhealthy snacks and lead to greater caloric intake. Junk food advergamers consume 30 percent fewer fruits and vegetables than their non-playing peers.

Against all odds, recent Centers for Disease Control statistics reveal slight drops in obesity among Los Angeles and New York youth, as well as those living in a few smaller cities, like Kearney, Neb. No one can state with certainty what has brought about these course corrections, but it seems likely that comprehensive school and public health efforts, including the Let's Move campaign led by Michelle Obama, are having an impact.

Corporate efforts to address food advertising may be helping too. Sixteen of the nation's largest packaged food companies and fast food chains, including Kraft Foods and McDonald's, have joined the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary self-regulatory program designed to improve the nutritional content of foods advertised to children under 12. Some observers regard this industry-led effort as a thinly veiled attempt to stave off government regulation. More encouraging is the new pledge from the Walt Disney Company that all food products advertised on Disney-owned media must meet strict new nutrition guidelines beginning in 2015. Some current Disney advertisers, such as Capri Sun and Kraft Lunchables meals, will no longer make the grade.

This rate of change may not be fast enough to help the current generation of American kids, more of whom will suffer obesity-related health problems including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease than tobacco-related illness. We need to treat junk food like tobacco and mandate Surgeon General's warning labels on non-nutritious, high-calorie packaged food products and restrictions on traditional and newer forms of food advertising. Our nation's youth see no tobacco ads on television and billboards, so why do we tolerate ads for French fries, candy and soda when we know their cumulative effect is just as deadly?

Public pressure must continue to mount. Parents and child advocates can stand up to food marketers with our collective economic power, calling for boycotts of the worst offenders. If the marketers themselves will commit to eating a steady diet of the same fat and sugar-laden products they peddle to our children, they won't have the energy for the fight.