Madison Avenue was challenged again yesterday over the way it markets food to children, as a new report was released suggesting that advertising contributes to childhood obesity.
The report, by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, summarized existing studies on obesity and the media like television, video games and movies that capture children's attention. Although it endorsed no solutions, it did discuss possible policy changes, like regulating or reducing food advertising aimed at children.
And it is far from the first examination of ads focusing on children; just on Monday, the American Psychological Association recommended that the government put restrictions on marketing to those younger than 7 or 8 because they are unable "to recognize advertising's persuasive intent.''
Big marketers have been busy lately responding to the growing concern over obesity, particularly when it relates to children and advertising. McDonald's fought off a lawsuit from two teenagers who accused the company of failing to provide necessary information about health risks associated with its meals. McDonald's and other chains like Burger King, Jack in the Box and Subway revamped their menus or marketing, or both, to emphasize healthier foods like salads. Kraft Foods promised to shrink portion sizes and trim fat and calories from some products. Even KFC tried to market its fried chicken as healthier than consumers might have thought.
But as the new study arrived yesterday, even with its carefully qualified statements, some marketers charged that it failed to support its conclusions adequately. Many called for parents to accept responsibility for their children's health.
"We want kids to buy our products," said Steven Rotter, chairman of the Rotter Group in New York, an agency that specializes in marketing to children. "But Mom and Dad, if your kid is eating too much and eating the wrong stuff, don't let them have it."
The report cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 15.3 percent of children ages 6 to 11 were overweight in 1999 and 2000, more than triple the average of 4.2 percent from 1963 to 1970.
The studies surveyed in the report did not spell out how television, video games and movies might have contributed to childhood obesity. But the report suggested that children's food advertising loomed large in the mix.
Some of the most compelling evidence came from studies that reduced children's exposure to media, said Vicky Rideout, vice president and director at the program for the study of entertainment media and health at the Kaiser Foundation.
"What's really powerful are the interventions that have succeeded in reducing children's weight problems by reducing the time spent with media," Ms. Rideout said. "If you find that something is succeeding, you don't necessarily have to wait for 100 percent proof explaining why it's succeeding."
That is particularly true, Ms. Rideout said, when parents are overwhelmed by the volume of marketing messages aimed at children.
In the marketing context, "media" is a term that is broadly defined to include not only direct broadcast and print advertising, but also things like subtle product placement in programming, artwork on product packaging and licensing arrangements that tie products to popular broadcast icons.
A Nickelodeon executive, who also participated in a panel where the report was released, said that waiting for all the evidence to come in was not good enough when the issue was children's health.
"While there is still much to be learned, we at Nickelodeon are not waiting to be proactive on this," said Marva Smalls, executive vice president for public affairs at the channel, part of the MTV Networks division of Viacom.
Nickelodeon's efforts have included six months of "reconnaissance" on the issue through conversations with trade associations, nutritionists, marketers, government officials and others; the introduction of a campaign with the theme "Let's just play," to encourage more physical activity among children; and restricting commercials during programming for preschoolers to the very beginning and very end of shows.
Procter & Gamble, one of the world's biggest advertisers, also said it was working to market itself fairly and responsibly. "We feel we need to have responsible marketing, especially in this obesity environment," said Gary Dowdell, director for external relations.
But marketers rejected the premise that advertising, marketing and promotions aimed at children made up the "main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity," as the report says is likely.
"There are a lot of questions about whether this advertising is a major force," said Daniel L. Jaffe, executive vice president for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers. "It would be very unfortunate, if we got off on some dead-end alley trying to manipulate advertising, when that may not be the driving force in this area."
Dick O'Brien, Mr. Jaffe's counterpart at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, agreed. "All of us are trying to figure out what's the best way to solve the epidemic," Mr. O'Brien said. "The Kaiser study goes at it in a fairly balanced way. Where they make a huge leap in judgment is where they say that advertising may be part of the problem."
To counter that, Mr. O'Brien cited the experience of Sweden and Quebec, which he said showed that restrictions on advertising food to children had not reduced obesity.
"Another alternative mentioned in the study, which we all here agree with, is to expand public education programs to promote healthy eating and exercise," Mr. O'Brien added.
The Children's Advertising Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus is also at work on the issue, searching for ads that may mislead children about nutrition. But Elizabeth Lascoutx, director at the unit, said that food-related issues constitute only a small portion of the possible infractions it has investigated. Of the 144 campaigns examined by the unit either informally or in a formal review last year, just 12 addressed food-related advertising, she said.
"It's hardly the biggest thing we're dealing with," Ms. Lascoutx said, calling children's privacy, especially online, a far more frequent concern.
But critics like Gary Ruskin, executive director at Commercial Alert in Portland, Ore., said the Kaiser Foundation report did not go far enough.
"The report reconfirms the obvious: that advertising to children works and that television is basically an obesity machine," Mr. Ruskin said. The report failed to delve deeper into questions over issues like product placement, which children in particular may not recognize as marketing, he said.
Worse, blaming parents for abdicating control over their children's diets fails to recognize the extent of advertising and marketing surrounding families, Mr. Ruskin said. "It's time for these large junk food companies to stop injecting themselves in the relationship between parents and kids," he said.
William MacLeod, a spokesman at the Grocery Manufacturers of America and another participant in yesterday's panel discussion on the report, said one challenge of being a parent is finding foods that children like and are good for them. Blaming advertising when children eat poorly misses the bigger picture, he said. "There has to be some balance in consumption of media, just as there needs to be in consumption of food," he said.
Posted on aef.com: March 1, 2004
Nat Ives, The New York Times. February 25, 2004
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