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Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. Headshot

Let's Junk Junk-Food Advertising to Kids

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No matter how often you've warned your kids that you're not buying any junk food at the grocery store, they still badger you relentlessly. Many times, they win, because they have a smiling, laughing SpongeBob SquarePants backing them up.

There's a virtual treasure trove of products emblazoned with SpongeBob and other characters enticing kids up and down every aisle, from boxes of Popsicles, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Yoplait Go-Gurt — a single serving of which contains a fair portion of the total daily allowance of sugar recommended by the American Heart Association for children.

When it comes to junk food, advertisers are outgunning well-intentioned parents, who know all too well it's tough going against the likes of SpongeBob, Dora or even LeBron James.

According to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission, food and beverage companies spent $1.8 billion marketing directly to children and teens in 2009. That may be a 15 percent decrease from the $2.1 billion spent in 2006, but that doesn't mean advertisers are getting softer. They're getting savvier. Interactive game websites for kids, Internet advertising, and product placement in movies, video games and TV shows are their new pathways. Coke cups accessorize the judges' table on American Idol, while on the "X Factor," folks have gone with Pepsi.

Fast-food restaurants, which spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009, are likewise exploiting new opportunities, including banner ads on mobile websites, smartphone applications, and text messaging ads.

Campaigns aimed at kids operate on what the industry calls "pester power." And boy, does it work. The average toddler sees nearly three fast-food advertisements every day; kids ages 6-11 view three-and-a-half ads; and teenagers, nearly five, according to a study by Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. As a result, 40 percent of children between ages two and 11 ask to go to McDonald's at least once a week, according to the Rudd Center research. Fifteen percent of preschoolers ask daily. In the end, 84 percent of parents say they acquiesced and had taken their kids, ages two to 11, to a fast-food restaurant at least once in the past week. 

It's no small wonder that more than a third of kids and teens today are overweight or obese and are being diagnosed with adult conditions like Type 2 diabetes. Recent research also suggests there may be a link between eating too much junk and an increased risk for asthma, severe eczema and rhinitis, a condition with allergy-like symptoms — runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. The study found children and young teens who ate fast food three or more times a week were significantly more likely to have these problems. Researchers speculate that may be because fast food is high in saturated fatty acids, trans fatty acids, sodium, carbohydrates and sugar, and contains preservatives.

Marketing any product directly to young children is devious, but marketing those that contribute to a dangerous and preventable health epidemic should be banned. It makes no sense to wage programs like Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" or public-service announcements touting fruit and vegetable consumption while allowing junk-food giants to trumpet their contradictory message, armed with bigger budgets, celebrity endorsements, licensed characters and far greater exposure.

Research shows that children younger than eight years old are not cognitively and psychologically capable of understanding the intent of advertising and typically accept claims as fact.

Furthermore, ads designed to promote healthy foods among kids can lose their potency when viewed in the same sitting as commercials for junk food. We also know that eating habits developed in childhood can last a lifetime, which, of course, is why advertisers are so eager to snag customers young.

It's disappointing that stars like Pepsi spokes-celebrities LeBron James and the boy band One Direction are willing to sell their images to push empty calories to kids, especially since they, along with popular licensed characters, are such persuasive sales tools. In a recent study, 40 children from age four to six were given three pairs of identical foods (graham crackers, gummy fruit snacks and carrots) packaged either with or without a popular cartoon character. After tasting both items in each pair, they were asked which tasted better. Overwhelmingly, the item that featured a cartoon character on the package was selected.

The American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend restricting child-directed advertising. Yet junk-food peddlers have managed to persuade lawmakers to let them regulate themselves. Can't you just hear SpongeBob laughing?

In the late 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission thoroughly studied the issue and agreed that advertising to children younger than age six was unfair and deceptive. It proposed restrictions on TV commercials for kids. But the proposal was dropped because of political opposition and some difficulty over deciding how rules should be implemented.

A number of countries have managed to impose restrictions. Sweden and Norway don't allow advertising targeted to children younger than 12. Greece forbids toy advertising before 10 p.m. In Denmark and Belgium, child-directed advertising is significantly restricted.

The province of Quebec in Canada banned fast-food advertising to children in television and print in 1978. As a result, fast-food sales have declined by an estimated 13 percent, and the childhood obesity rate in Quebec is significantly lower than the national average.

Increasingly, though, television and print are only part of the problem. Eighty percent of kids under age five use the Internet weekly, and 60 percent of kids three and younger watch videos online. Check out the bookmarks on your child's computer, and you may be surprised to find interactive commercials masquerading as game sites, such as Burger King's BKCrown.com, McDonald's HappyMeal.com, Trix Cereal's sillyrabbit.com or gummibear.com. Websites also are frequently promoted on product packaging, sometimes directing kids there to find quiz answers or enter contests.

So far, only baby steps have been made. Monsters Inc. and Toy Story fruit snacks notwithstanding, Walt Disney Co. last year announced it would restrict advertisements on its various media outlets of foods that don't meet certain nutritional requirements. The new rules start in 2015, after existing contracts expire. This follows a 2006 initiative in which the house of mouse opted to phase out promotion of junk food to kids and at its theme parks.

Kudos also go to MOM's Organic Market, the 10-store chain in the Washington-Baltimore area that announced it was dropping all products with packaging that features licensed children's characters, including Dora the Explorer frozen soybeans and Elmo juice boxes.

That's a start, but we need to finish the job, banning junk-food and fast-food peddlers from targeting kids who haven't even learned to tie their shoes. Until then, I urge parents to keep computers and televisions out of children's rooms and in a spot where you can see what's happening. Continue to preach the importance of healthy eating habits and, above all, hang tough in the grocery store. Don't let SpongeBob have the last laugh.