Is It Wrong to Market Even Healthy Food to Kids?

No amount of legislation could entirely insulate children from food advertising in today's world, where even the inside of the bathroom stall is now considered fair game for marketers.
06/26/2013 04:35 pm ET Updated Aug 26, 2013

That's the contention put forth by public health lawyer Michele Simon (Eat Drink Politics) andᅡᅠSusan Linn, Director of theᅡᅠCampaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in a recentᅡᅠarticle.

Noting -- as I often have -- that cognitive deficits make children especially vulnerable to the persuasive power of advertising, Simon and Linn object to any use of cartoon characters and other standard tactics for marketing to kids, even for objectively healthy foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Here's the crux of their position:

Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort. Marketing to children does more than sell products -- it inculcates habits and behaviors. Marketing branded produce such asᅡᅠKung-Fu Panda Edamameᅡᅠto children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child's own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

Simon and Linn then point to some countries in Europe with bans (to varying degrees) on children's advertising and assert that "[w]ith enough political will, lawmakers could pass new laws banning marketing to children without running afoul of the First Amendment."

Putting aside First Amendment issues (which are not, as the authors seem to imply in the article, a matter of settled law), I do fervently hope that someday our kids can live in a commercial-free world. But, speaking as a realist, I also think it will be a very long time before the necessary "political will" manifests itself in this country.

Let's not forget that in 2011 even purelyᅡᅠvoluntaryᅡᅠchildren's advertising guidelines -- a far cry from an outright ad ban -- fell victim to the food industry's powerful lobby. Worse, as the Reuters news agencyᅡᅠnoted in a 2012 special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children's marketing in obesity.

Until such a time as we might have a blanket ban on advertising to children, the processed and fast food industries are reaching our kids at an unprecedented rate -- to the tune of almost $2 billion in annual expenditures -- and not just through traditional channels such as television, print and school sponsorships, but also through new media such as mobile devices, "advergaming," interactive campaigns and contests, YouTube videos and more. ᅡᅠAnd,ᅡᅠalmost invariably, such advertisements promote unhealthy foods.

Faced with this grossly uneven playing field, I'm not especially troubled by putting Dora the Explorer on a bag of carrot sticks if it helps, even in a small way, to rectify that balance. ᅡᅠOn herᅡᅠEat Drink Politics Facebook page, Simon expressed concern that such manipulation overrides children's innate hunger cues, but as I responded there:

I don't believe that positive messaging for whole foods is ever going to override hunger cues. ᅡᅠIn other words, I don't believe any amount of "Sponge-Bobbing" of spinach is going to make kids gorge on spinach. I think overeating has to do with the addictive properties of highly processed food, a la Michael Moss's "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us."

Ideally, though, I'd want to spend less time putting cartoon characters on any products and far more time teaching kids media literacy, arming them with the ability to see through all attempts to manipulate them via advertising and marketing. ᅡᅠThat's because, even in countries with children's advertising restrictions in place, the food industry -- surprise, surprise -- still manages to reach children. ᅡᅠAs the Guardian newspaper reported just last week, the World Health Organization found that, despite a British banᅡᅠon the advertising of foods with high salt, fat and sugar content during children's programs, there has been an overall increase in junk food advertising at other times of the day, such as the "family viewing" period between 6 p.m. and 10.30 p.m. when ᅡᅠshows popular with all age groups, like "Britain's Got Talent" and "The X Factor," are aired.

Putting aside the flaws in the British ad ban (which, the WHO report notes, is not as strong as blanket bans in a few other EU countries), it's self-evident that no amount of legislation could entirely insulate children from food advertising in today's world, where even the inside of the bathroom stall is now considered fair game for marketers.

For that reason, I recently was motivated to help teach young children about food industry manipulation by creating my own kids' video about processed food, "Mr. Zee's Apple Factory." ᅡᅠGarnering almost 11,000 views in the five weeks since its release, I'm ᅡᅠgratified by the positive response it's received so far.

One homemade video is just a tiny drop in the bucket, of course, but there are many others like me out there focusing primarily on the "inoculation" side of the children's advertising equation.ᅡᅠParents and teachers can access entirely free media literacy curricula from sources like PBS's "Don't Buy It"ᅡᅠprogram, the UK-basedᅡᅠMedia Smartᅡᅠwebsite, as well as the exciting programs and curricula created by the Yale Prevention Research Center under the leadership of Dr. David Katz. ᅡᅠ(In a future post I'll be sharing more about the latter, which have already reached hundreds of thousands of children.)

Ad bans and media literacy instruction are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I certainly stand with Simon and Linn in their desire to limit harmful media messages directed at kids. ᅡᅠBut until our legislators are able to resist the allure of food industry contributions and influence, I'm perfectly willing to take some pages from Big Food's playbook if doing so can help push children in the right direction when it comes to healthy eating.