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General Mills Touts Sugary Cereal As Healthy Kids Breakfast

General Mills Inc. plans to launch a national ad campaign targeted at children that will tout the health benefits of eating breakfast cereal -- including Trix, Cocoa Puffs and other sugary ones it sells.

The campaign, expected to be announced today, stakes out a potentially controversial stance in the debate over who's responsible for the nation's obesity epidemic, particularly among children. Criticism of heavy marketing to children by Kraft Foods Inc., General Mills and other food companies prompted Kraft this year to stop advertising some of its sweetest cereals to kids.

General Mills, the nation's No. 2 cereal maker behind Kellogg Co. and the largest advertiser to children, hopes that by playing up the benefits of breakfast through ads on programs popular with children it can portray itself as part of the solution, not the problem. "We have a different point of view than Kraft," said Mark Addicks, chief marketing officer of General Mills. "We think that kids should be eating cereal, including pre-sweetened cereal."

The conflicting approaches show how the food industry is casting about for ways to defend itself against criticism that it is making Americans fat. Kellogg has said it believes it markets responsibly and sees no need for change. Other makers have quietly shifted their marketing of some kids' products toward adults and infused new campaigns with messages about exercise. For example, Interstate Bakeries Corp. has refocused kid favorite Hostess Twinkies on the adult market.

General Mills's "Choose Breakfast" campaign will use such ad icons as the Trix bunny and Lucky Charms leprechaun, which will appear on the backs of cereal boxes as part of a new "fitness squad" that will tell kids that breakfast can help them stay focused in the morning and build muscles.

The company also will tack 10-second trailers onto the end of its commercials that show kids who claim to have been energized by eating breakfast. General Mills says the campaign isn't intended to push cereal specifically, but breakfast in general. It will cite research, including General Mills's own studies, to argue that kids who eat breakfast perform better in school, have fewer disciplinary problems and are less likely to be obese than kids who eat little or no cereal.

The commercials will air on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network as well as child-oriented programs on other channels. General Mills wouldn't say how much it will spend on the yearlong campaign.

Because the pitch includes sugary cereals like Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Count Chocula, it could open General Mills to criticism that it is seeking to mix up the benefits of healthful cereals with others that aren't as nutritious. Kids cereal has long been an enemy of nutritionists because of its high sugar content.

"The makers of these cereals have done a fabulous marketing job of making people think that these are healthy food when these are cookies," said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition, food studies and public health who frequently is critical of the industry. Ms. Nestle hadn't seen the General Mills ads.

But when compared with not eating breakfast at all, several nutritionists say that sweetened cereals are acceptable considering that cereal with milk gives kids calcium, protein and, in some cases, whole grain. "Most kids breakfast cereals are better than no breakfast at all," says Jeannie Moloo, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a professional group that gets funding from dieticians and the food industry.

Geoff Martin, director of the food department at Consumer Reports, said several popular kids cereals are low in sugar and high in fiber, such as Kix and Rice Krispies. "There certainly are enough good ones out there that you ought to be able to find one that your kid finds palatable," he said.

The Children's Advertising Review Unit, an arm of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, is endorsing the General Mills campaign after the company sought the organization's input. "I think it is responsible advertising," said Elizabeth Lascoutx, director of the group, which is partly funded by children's advertisers, including General Mills. "They're encouraging a behavior that is healthful" as opposed to not eating breakfast.

General Mills contends that no more than 5% of the sugar in a child's diet comes from cereal. It argues that the vitamins, calcium and whole grains in its cereal trump any negative effects of sugar. "Most consumers understand the fundamental nutrition of cereal," said Mr. Addicks, the company's marketing officer.

To support its contention that kids who are frequent cereal eaters have lower body weights, General Mills will cite a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study was written by three researchers in General Mills's health and nutrition division. To calculate the statistic that 5% of the sugar in a child's diet comes from sugar, General Mills used data from the Centers for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. A spokeswoman for the agency said she couldn't confirm the 5% figure.

As criticism of food companies has mounted and lawmakers have threatened regulatory action, cereal companies have tried to make their products healthier. Last year, General Mills started making all its cereals with whole grain and introduced reduced-sugar versions of many popular kids varieties using the sweetener Splenda.

Meanwhile, Kraft has deemed many of its sweetened cereals unfit to pitch to kids. In January, the Northfield, Ill., company announced it would stop airing TV ads aimed at children ages 6 to 11 for Fruity Pebbles, Golden Crisp, Waffle Crisp and Oreo O's cereals as well as ads for Oreo cookies, some Lunchables and Kool-Aid. Kraft said it made the moves to encourage healthy eating.

Food makers rely heavily on ads to drive sales and secure space on grocery shelves. General Mills spent $15 million on TV ads during the 12 months that ended in March, says TNS Media Intelligence.

The company could use a strong marketing campaign to spur its sluggish cereal sales. Big cereal companies have been losing sales to private-label manufacturers since they raised prices last year. In March, General Mills said the volume of cereal it shipped during its fiscal third quarter fell 9%. The company appears to be struggling more than archrival Kellogg, whose cereal sales rose 4% during its most recently reported quarter.


Janet Adamy, The Wall Street Journal. June 22, 2005

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