Let's Tell Big Food to Stop Acting Like Spoiled Kids -- and Stop Inciting Real Kids to Nag for Junk Food

08/24/2011 12:53 pm ET | Updated Oct 24, 2011
  • Susan Linn Research Associate, Boston Children's Hospital; Lecturer on Pscyhiatry, Harvard Medical School

The food industry is throwing a very expensive tantrum to quash proposed national nutritional guidelines for food advertised to kids. Meanwhile, yet another research study has been released demonstrating the harm done by advertising directed at children.

As concern about childhood obesity escalates, the barrage of kid-targeted marketing for unhealthy food is increasingly identified as a factor -- not the sole cause, but an important part of the problem -- which could easily be remedied. The evidence keeps building for the need to stop inundating kids with junk food marketing. For example, a study recently conducted at Stanford University showed that branding even trumps our senses -- at least for preschoolers. Kids were given food wrapped in McDonald's wrappers and the same food wrapped in plain wrappers. Most of them swore that the food in branded wrapping tasted better. Similarly, a study conducted through Yale University found that processed food tastes better to young children when its packaging is emblazoned with popular characters like Scooby Doo.

The Johns Hopkins researchers took a different tack. They looked at triggers for nagging in preschoolers, and found that the more kids were exposed to commercial television -- in particular beloved media characters like Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob -- the more they nagged. And at the top of the list of what they nag for? Junk food.

Of course, marketers already know all about commercials and nagging. They even have a name for it: The Nag Factor. The Brits call it "pester power," which sounds more refined, but comes down to the same thing -- making it more difficult for parents to instill healthy eating habits in their children. Like the folks at Johns Hopkins, marketers also do research on nagging. But the industry studies are not designed to help parents cope. They're to help companies help children nag more effectively. After all, one out of three trips to a fast food restaurant comes about through nagging.

The industry spin is that parents should be immune to nagging, and the study lists strategies for preventing and containing nagging. Curbing children's exposure to commercialism and preparing kids for what you are and aren't going to buy when you go to the supermarket, are two of the suggestions. They're good suggestions (I particularly like the first one) but really, truly shouldn't we give parents and kids a break and stop the endless barrage of junk food marketing? In fact, as I've said before, maybe we should stop marketing food to children altogether.

I believe that the best way to curb any kind of marketing to kids -- including junk food marketing -- is regulation. But the proposed Interagency Working Group guidelines are a step. That's why the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is joining public health and advocacy organizations in urging everyone to tell the food industry to stop behaving like spoiled kids and do what's best for real children -- stop sabotaging the government's food marketing guidelines.