Ronald McDonald. Cap'n Crunch. Toucan Sam. Tony the Tiger.
The most popular icons in food advertising conjure childhood memories for many of us. But these ever-familiar images are ingrained in our minds because they have been ever-present in our lives. McDonald's is as big a part of American culture as the American flag itself, and companies like Kellogg's, that use cartoons to market cereals like Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes, have been ubiquitous in the rise of the industrial food system.
I'm currently reading nutritionist and New York University Professor Marion Nestle's Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. In Chapter 8, Nestle describes tactics used by food company marketers to lure children to eat their products.
One might think that childhood marketing wouldn't be something that companies would want to readily admit, but they seem to be pretty shameless in their approach. In fact, Nestle notes that advertisers use gimics directed to children as young as age two.
Regardless of how immoral and shameless such tactics may seem, marketers use this rationale: Children comprise a multi-billion dollar market, and what better way to instill brand loyalty and increase lifetime profits than by marketing to the youngest, most vulnerable members of society?
Nestle quotes one marketer saying, "Kids are a growing demographic and [the companies] are trying to get in on the ground floor." Another marketing strategist defended childhood advertising as "nothing less than primary education in commercial life."
Nestle cites various venues of childhood advertising. From food packaging to television and magazine ads to Pepsico and Coca Cola contracts with schools, children are constantly bombarded by advertisements that aim to convince them to eat and drink certain products.
In such a ruthless environment, one might wonder who is on the side of the consumer. Organizations like the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood make valiant efforts to educate the public and advocate on the side of parents, but sadly, those in power often side with the powerful food lobby and consequently do little to restrict corporations that target children.
In April, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), stating that childhood obesity is "the most serious health crisis facing today's youth," announced that it would take measures to encourage food marketers to advertise healthier foods to children.
“Children are strongly influenced by the foods they see advertised on television and elsewhere. Creating a food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents to encourage healthy eating among children will have a significant impact on reducing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Nestle notes in Food Politics that childhood obesity "results from complex interactions of societal, economic demographic and environmental changes that not only encourage people to eat more food than needed to meet these energy requirements, but also encourage people to make less healthful food choices and act as barriers to physical activity."
The FTC's efforts, in my opinion, don't go far enough to address advertising directed at children. Instead of saying, "Childhood advertising is wrong," the FTC instead is soliciting the input of the very companies that have a profit motive and only encouraging the marketing of healthier foods to kids.
It's this type of compromising that, when combined with parents' lack of knowledge, has put the health of our nation's children in jeopardy.
When a child sees 10 advertisements on TV in just one day for a snack food that's made up of corn syrup, preservatives and colorings, it seems likely that the child will want to eat that food. But would that same child see 10 advertisements on any given day for apples, green beans and whole grain rice? Probably not.
In this month's issue of Pedatrics, the link between childhood obesity and media is examined, with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) calling for a ban on junk food advertising.
"Ads for junk food and fast food increase kids’ desire for these foods," the AAP said in a statement.
“American society couldn’t do a worse job at the moment of keeping children fit and healthy – too much TV, too many food ads, not enough exercise, and not enough sleep," said Victor Strasburger, MD, FAAP, a member of the AAP Council on Communications and Media and lead author of the statement.
“Thirty years ago, the federal government ruled that young children are psychologically defenseless against advertising. Now, kids see 5,000 to 10,000 food ads per year, most of them for junk food and fast food,” said Strasburger.
So, just as Nestle says that marketers defend childhood advertising on the grounds of free speech, parents should be encouraged to act on their own free will by doing whatever they can to reduce the amount of advertisements to which their children are exposed.
These are my recommendations:
- Buy store brand foods and shop local. This way your children won't see cartoons and other appealing figures on the boxes of food in your home. Ideally, purchase most of your food from a farmers market or local food co-op.
- Limit TV time, and consider cancelling your cable package. Children can't be subjected to marketing if they're not watching TV.
- Encourage a "know your food" attitude. Teach your kids about where their food comes from and how to read ingredient labels. The food industry's profits are based largely in what consumers don't know, so if you can't figure out how to pronounce an ingredient, you probably don't want your kids eating it!