Curbing junk food marketing to kids – National Consumers League

Lili Gecker, NCL public policy intern

Marketing is no doubt a powerful, but often subtle, tool. We are bombarded with media everyday and navigate through logos and jingles to make decisions as consumers. But what about when marketing is aimed toward children, who cannot fully understand the power of advertising? And what about when these consumer decisions impact our health? One study demonstrated that when preschoolers were asked whether they would rather eat broccoli or a Hershey’s chocolate bar, 78 percent of the children chose the chocolate bar and 22 percent chose broccoli. When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, 50 percent of the children chose broccoli. This holds incredible weight for food marketers and the children’s entertainment industry.

In addition, food companies have found new and creative ways to market their products to children. Advergames are online games that food makers are increasingly putting on their Web sites as a way to introduce children to their products. It has been estimated that about 1.2 million children visit company Web sites that have advergames every month, and children spend up to an hour each month playing the games.

In great part to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative, the epidemic of childhood obesity has been brought to the forefront over the past few years. Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the past three decades, and today, nearly one in three children in the United States are overweight or obese. These numbers are higher in African American and Hispanic communities, where nearly 40 percent of children are overweight or obese. Obesity can lead to several health problems, even later in life, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep apnea, as well as social and emotional problems.

The First Lady’s campaign, which aims to reduce childhood obesity by 5 percent by the year 2030, combines various strategies, such as prenatal health care, access to healthy lunches in school and exercise incentives. They also have an initiative to improve food marketing to children and youth. The Federal Trade Commission estimated that food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people in 2006.

The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) comprised of representatives of Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control, United States Department of Agriculture developed recommendations for uniform standards for foods marketed to children ages 17 and under, as well recommendations for the media. They released voluntary standards in 2009.

Joining the self-regulating industry groups, Disney has created its own set of standards. The company announced earlier this month that over the next three years it will phase out junk food advertising on its TV and radio programming targeted at children. All foods marketed on Disney channel will have to align with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition, Disney launched a new “Mickey Check” symbol, which will be used to mark nutritious foods on menus and packaging. This will take a positive step in encouraging children to associate healthy choices with entertainment, and it will make the decision to choose healthy foods easier on the whole family.

The media giant was praised by many public health leaders including Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, the Partnership for a Healthier America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Produce for Better Health foundation. First Lady Michelle Obama said in her statement of support, “they’ve realized that what is good for our children can also be good business.”