There is no longer doubt that children and teens need protection from food marketing. Research shows that food marketing has a direct and powerful impact on young people's food preferences and eating behaviors, and negatively influences their diet, weight, and health. The food industry almost $1.8 billion annually to market foods and beverages high in sugar, saturated fat, or sodium directly to youth. This marketing is relentless, and the nation is paying a terrible price. Kids growing up today may well be the first generation to die younger than their parents due to weight related diseases.
The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity weighed all the evidence and concluded that everyone, including the food and entertainment industries, government, media, schools and local communities, must work together to create a healthy environment for children. Parents, health experts, medical professionals, schools and communities have been tirelessly working together to protect the health of our children, but many segments of the food and entertainment media industry have yet to seriously commit to real change.
A report just out by our group at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that children view more than 13 food and beverage ads on TV every day and adolescents view an average of 16 ads. What is even more disturbing is the fact that the average preschooler sees more than 11 food ads per day, despite the food industry's self-regulatory pledge to not advertise to very young children due to their vulnerability to advertising's influence.
Where are children seeing all of these ads? As it turns out, one media company is responsible for more food advertising to children and teens than any other media company: Viacom. This entertainment company owns over 160 networks including Nickelodeon, and is responsible for almost half of all food ads viewed by youth under 18 in the country. In fact, Nickelodeon alone aired over one-fourth of all food ads viewed by two- to 11-year-olds, reaching every child in the United States with an average of three ads per day. The worst program of all? Nickelodeon's Spongebob Squarepants.
In a recent letter to stockholders, Viacom said, "As we continue to invest in great content, Viacom will continue to seize on every opportunity to monetize that programming on every screen." Indeed, Viacom is seizing every opportunity to make money, to the tune of $13.9 billion a year. In the meantime, obesity costs account for over 20 percent of all national health care expenditures at $190 billion a year.
Viacom's behavior stands in stark contrast with their competitor, Disney. Over the summer Disney announced that food advertised to children on its many media platforms will have to meet new, healthier standards. According to Disney's Chairman and CEO, Roger Iger, "The emotional connection kids have to our characters and stories gives us a unique opportunity to continue to inspire and encourage them to lead healthier lives." Disney's new guidelines go into effect by 2015 and are designed to promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables and reduce the intake of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat. It's time for Viacom to step up and take responsibility for its role in promoting unhealthy food to children. Just imagine: if Viacom stopped marketing junk food to children today, the nation's children would see nearly half as many ads tomorrow. One policy by one company could make a huge difference.
Children's health and well-being are essential to the future vitality and security of this country, and parents care deeply about their children's health. But, parents also know they are up against powerful commercial interests, and they are starting to get angry. Companies that intentionally target children must earn parents' trust, and if Viacom maintains the status quo, it is in serious danger of losing that trust. If Viacom wants to maintain its image as a safe place for children's entertainment, they must stop undermining parents and become part of the solution.