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Children-and-Food Study Slams Marketing Industry

A government report today that accuses food marketers of using billions in marketing dollars to woo children away from good diet choices could become a watershed on the scale of the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco.

“Ample information and studies [indicate] that television advertising influences the food preferences, purchase requests and diets at least of children under 12 and is associated with the increased rates of obesity among children and youth,” concludes the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine report, billed as the ”most comprehensive review of the scientific studies.”

Action threatened

The report urges the food industry to work voluntarily with the government to forge “an agenda to turn beverage and marketing toward better diets.” But if that cooperation doesn’t yield substantial change within two years, the report calls for legislative action.

“If voluntary efforts related to advertising during children’s programming are unsuccessful in shifting the emphasis away from high-calorie and low-nutrition foods and beverages to advertising of healthful foods and beverages, Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift on both broadcast and cable television,” the report says.

Disputing conclusions

Marketing and food industry officials called the report a "flawed study” and disputed its conclusions. Industry executives contend the report fails to take into account recent changes in food marketing; is based on no new research; and doesn’t explain how food marketing can be a culprit in childhood obesity even as food ads aimed at children are declining while obesity rates among children continues to rise. Moreover, industry executives questioned the constitutionality of any legislation.

Still, their worry may be whether the report will be seen in the same way as the groundbreaking 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco and fuel a new push for legislative action on food advertising. One of the report’s recommendations, in fact, sounded eerily similar to one used in the battle against Joe Camel: Marketers should stop using licensed characters except to promote food and beverages “that support healthful diets.”

Radical proposal

Dan Jaffe, executive VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said the legislative recommendation could open the door to similar attacks on unpopular advertising. “It’s an enormously radical proposal that if the advertising is not adequately balanced, the government will step in to force the desired balance. How would that be determined? Based on what? Who would be deciding what is and isn’t balance, what foods are good and which aren’t and based on what?”

Dick O’Brien, executive VP of the Association of American Advertising Agencies, said that based on no new data, the report draws "startling new conclusions and then call[s] for legislation. It is a breathless overreaction.”

Wally S. Snyder, president-CEO of the American Advertising Federation, said the proposed recommendations are inappropriate. “It would come down to stopping truthful advertising to children. That is not the standard we are following,” he said. “They want us to choose good products and bad products, when advertising of all products that is truthful is appropriate.”

Marketplace is responding

The Grocery Manufacturers Association said it shares the Institute’s desire to reduce childhood obesity, but said marketers have already taken steps to implement many of the report’s recommendations. “This report is a compendium of existing research and most of its recommendations are already being done,” said Richard Martin, a GMA spokesman. “The marketplace is already responding and legislation is costly, complicated and really not necessary.

The study, titled “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity,” was requested by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a critic of food and fast-food advertising.

Today Mr. Harkin called the report a “landmark” study and said it proves “that the onslaught of junk-food marketing is endangering the health of our children. We would like to think that SpongeBob SquarePants, Shrek and the Disney Princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters; but they are being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices. This must stop. Now it is time to act.”


Ira Teinowitz, AdAge.com. December 6, 2005

Copyright © 2004, Crain Communications Inc.. All rights reserved.