We worry so much about the many dangers to our children, like drugs and pedophiles and violence. But we often take for granted what might very well be the largest danger of all to our kids: the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year on ads designed to get them hooked on junk food.
That's why I think it's important that this week more than 550 health professionals and organizations signed an open letter to McDonald's, imploring the fast food giant to stop marketing junk food to kids. Many major metropolitan newspapers across the country are running full-page ads featuring the letter.
The letter doesn't so go far as to ask McDonald's to stop selling junk food to kids. It only asks them to stop aggressively advertising such foods to children.
Will it make any difference?
Critics say the campaign, organized by the nonprofit watchdog group "Corporate Accountability International," is just another attempt to undercut consumer freedom, just another effort by the food police to dictate what you and your children can eat.
McDonald's food may be junk, say such critics, but it's a personal choice. No one is physically forcing children to eat Big Macs. Where are parents anyway? Why don't they assume their authority and take responsibility? Are they just looking for someone other than themselves to blame because their kids are fat and unhealthy?
No one, not even McDonald's, doubts that we are witnessing an escalating epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease in children. In 1971, only 4 percent of 6- to 11-year-old kids were obese. By 2004, the figure had more than quadrupled, to nearly 20 percent, with nearly 40 percent now considered overweight. A lack of exercise probably isn't the cause of the increase, because many studies show that exercise levels in kids haven't changed much in the past few decades. What, then, lies at the root of the crisis?
We know that kids in the U.S. today consume more calories, and more junk food, than any similarly aged population in the history of the world. But why, and who is responsible? McDonald's places the blame for the situation squarely on the shoulders of parents. The problem, they say, is a breakdown in parental responsibility.
I am a staunch advocate for personal freedom and parental responsibility, which, you may be surprised to hear, is in fact precisely why I stand with the health professionals on this one. You see, there is a major problem with the marketing of junk food to malleable kids that is almost never recognized.
It is this: The ads are almost deliberately designed to compromise parental authority. The industry calls it "the pester factor." The PR companies who produce these ads speak happily of making kids "obnoxious," of getting them to "drive their parents crazy."
The idea is to get kids to want junk food so much that they nag their parents to take them to McDonald's, and to buy them other foods they have seen advertised, eventually breaking down parents' resistance. In the face of the relentless barrage of such advertisements, how many parents are able to hold their ground?
Is this one of the chief reasons there has been such a pervasive loosening of parental rules regarding food? Confronted with a constant stream of ads for junk food, and its nearly ubiquitous availability, parental authority around food issues has often declined to the point of becoming parental resignation.
The "pester factor" has enormous economic implications, as well. Advertisers estimate that one out of three fast food trips take place as a result of a child's nagging.
The marketing strategy is effective, but it's insidious. Traditionally, it has been parents who have taken leadership in deciding what their kids are going to eat. But McDonald's and other fast food companies spend billions of dollars a year on ad campaigns that target children, with the goal of taking that leadership away from the parents, and shifting it onto the kids themselves. In this way, the ads not only promote the consumption of junk food, with all the baneful health consequences we are witnessing today. What may be even worse is that at the same time the aggressive marketing of junk food undermines parental authority. The continual onslaught of such ads leads the parents to feel like bad guys for not giving kids what they want, and erodes the respect that parents receive from their kids.
To make the ads even more dubious, young children are not capable of understanding that the advertising is intended to manipulate their feelings and alter their behavior. Given that children can't comprehend the persuasive intent behind ads, is it ethical to advertise to them foods that are conclusively proven to be unhealthy? Should it even be legal?
Calling on McDonald's CEO and President, Jim Skinner, to "stop marketing junk food to kids," the letter was signed by a veritable who's who of luminaries in the world of healthy eating and disease prevention, including authors Andrew Weil and T. Colin Campbell. Other signators include David L. Katz, Director of Yale Prevention Research Center and editor-in-chief of Child Obesity; Robert S. Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Marion Nestle, Paulette Goodard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health, and professor of Sociology, New York University; and Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health. The letter states:
As health professionals engaged directly in the largest preventable health crisis facing this country, we ask that you stop marketing junk food to children.
The rates of sick children are staggering. Ballooning health care costs and an overburdened health care system make treatment more difficult than ever. And we know that reducing junk food marketing can significantly improve the health of kids.
Our community is devoted to caring for sick children and preventing illness through public education. But our efforts cannot compete with the hundreds of millions of dollars you spend each year directly marketing to kids.
Today, our private practices, pediatric clinics, and emergency rooms are filled with children suffering from conditions related to the food they eat. In the decades to come, one in three children will develop type 2 diabetes as a result of diets high in McDonald's-style junk food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This generation may be the first in U.S. history to live shorter lives than their parents.
The rise of health conditions like diabetes and heart disease mirrors the growth of your business -- growth driven in large part by children's marketing...
While acknowledging that fast food is unhealthy, you pin responsibility for the epidemic of diet related disease on a breakdown in parental responsibility...
Even when parents resist the 'nag effect' cultivated by McDonald's to access the $40 - 50 billion in annual purchases that children under 12 control, advertising creates brand loyalties that persist into adulthood...
We ask that you... retire your marketing promotions for food high in salt, fat, sugar, and calories to children...
Will it do any good?
The day after the full-page ads began appearing in newspapers across the country, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner made a public statement in response. Citing no evidence, he claimed that parents and customers were calling on him "to defend their right to choose." But the doctors and other health professionals who signed the letter were not asking McDonald's to stop selling junk food, only to stop advertising it to children.
McDonald's claims the company is doing enough already, by being part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. But how effective is this program? It's an entirely voluntary pledge, with absolutely no enforcement mechanism, produced by representatives from Burger King, Coco-Cola, Hershey, Mars, Nestle, and PepsiCo, along with McDonald's. As you can imagine, the "pledges" made by various companies under the Initiative have stemmed the tide of marketing junk food to kids about as effectively as the New Orleans levees stemmed the tide of Hurricane Katrina.
McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner, whose take-home pay in 2009 was more than $17 million, insists the company will not budge.
But there is a precedent that suggests the full-page ad campaign might yet have an effect. Up until 2008, it was not uncommon for school report cards to carry the Golden Arches logo, offering a free Happy Meal to elementary school children who got good grades. McDonald's ended the program when the practice was noticed and a sufficiently irate public outcry ensued.
By shining a spotlight of attention on the impact McDonald's advertising has on the health of our kids, this campaign just might take a bite out of the happy, kid-friendly façade that the company has worked so hard to cultivate. After all, how kid-friendly is it to aggressively market products to kids which take a catastrophic toll on our children's health and ability to thrive?
John Robbins is the author of many bestsellers including "The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Life and Our World," the classic "Diet For A New America," and "The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less." He is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey's Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America's Lifetime Achievement Award. To learn more about his work, visit www.johnrobbins.info