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Junk Food Companies Contradict Themselves on Marketing to Kids

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An apple a day and eating your peas used to lead to good health. Now, according to major food manufacturers, they are "job killers" that will devastate the American economy.

In April of this year, the Federal Trade Commission, along with three other federal agencies (FDA, CDC and USDA), released a set of proposed guidelines for marketing food to children to reduce sugars, fats and salts and increase fruits, whole grains and vegetables in the diets of American youth. In 2008, led by Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Congress asked for the recommendations to address the nation's growing obesity crisis among our nation's youth.

A coalition of major manufacturers of processed foods (including Froot Loops, Lucky Charms and SpaghettiOs), fast-food chains and the media industry that depends on their advertising dollars are spending millions on lobbyists to derail the proposed voluntary guidelines.

In my opinion, the food lobby's arguments are contradictory and wrong. They alternate between saying, on the one hand, that the voluntary marketing guidelines won't make a difference in reducing obesity among American children, while, on the other hand, they are unnecessary government intrusions into an industry that is already reducing its advertising to children. Which is it?

The children's health crisis is real. Studies show that one-third of all children aged 10 to 17 are overweight or obese. In the past three decades rates have more than doubled among kids aged 2 to 5 and more than tripled among those ages 6 through 11. The incidence of "adult onset" diabetes in children and youth has more than doubled in the past decade.

A number of marketing studies have confirmed the obvious: Advertising to kids increases purchasing and consumption. According to an analysis by the FTC, 44 food and beverage companies spent $2 billion in 2006 alone marketing to children. There's a huge amount at stake for the junk food and media industries. James McNeal, a former marketing professor at Texas A&M University, estimates that children influence more than $100 billion food and beverage purchases each year.

Youth today are immersed in more commercial advertising in more media than any time in history. Food companies understand that and have expanded their advertising to cover every corner of this new media-immersed world in what one communications scholar calls "360-degree marketing," including Internet, video games, cellphones, sponsored Web games, marketing in schools and eye-level packaging with cartoon characters and popular kids movies.

Food makers are denying the link between their ads and children's health. According to comments submitted by General Mills (the makers of Reese's Puffs, Honey Nut Cheerios and Lucky Charms), "[The proposed guidelines] would yield no discernible benefits in the battle against obesity." They went even further to say that they "will do nothing to combat obesity."

But their rhetoric and their actions contradict each other.

On the one hand, it's implausible that sophisticated food conglomerates would spend nearly $2 billion dollars advertising to children if it didn't generate more sales. Scott Faber, a vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, said, "I can't imagine any mom in America who thinks stripping tigers and toucans off cereal boxes will do anything to reduce obesity." It doesn't take an advertising expert to know that food companies put SpongeBob (or tigers and toucans) on the outside of the box to sell more cereal. A recent study by Johns Hopkins University says that cartoon characters play a key role in getting children to nag their parents for fatty foods. One study even showed that young children think food packaged with a cartoon character on the front actually tastes better. Another study showed that if you wrap carrots in a McDonald's packaging, kids actually say that the carrots taste better.

On the other hand, in 2006 a coalition of these same companies created their own industry guidelines -- the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative -- to self-police their own marketing to kids of healthy foods. The original standards, while weak and allowing companies to apply their own definition of "healthy" (that conveniently always included their own products), did cause some companies to reduce their ads targeting children. This July they released a set of stronger and more consistent advertising standards

In other words, major food manufacturers think that some of their products are unhealthy for kids, realize advertising impacts sales and have stopped marketing them.

Which is it? Marketing influences our kids' healthy eating habits, or it doesn't? They can't have it both ways.

Then, of course, there are the facts. According to Ellen Wartella, a member of an Institute of Medicine committee that produced the seminal 2005 report on food marketing to children, "We can't anymore argue whether food advertising is related to children's diets. It is." The Institute of Medicine reviewed the scientific evidence on the influence of food marketing on diets and diet-related health of children and youth. The report found that "current food and beverage marketing practices puts children's long-term health at risk."

The food industry's convoluted and contradictory arguments can only be intended to obscure a simple fact. According to noted food and nutrition expert Marion Nestle, "To satisfy stockholders, food companies must convince people to eat more of their products or to eat their products instead of those of the competitors." It's logical for them. Unfortunately, that mission runs up against good health in too many places.