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Panel Faults Food Packaging For Kid Obesity

SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek should quit hawking junk food to kids.

That is a major recommendation in a report from the Institute of Medicine, one of the nation's leading scientific-advisory bodies, which spent a year studying the effects of food marketing on children's diet and health. Among its findings, the report attacks one of the food industry's most effective marketing tools: the use of licensed characters on food packages.

The report, released yesterday, is a review of 123 scientific research studies spanning 30 years on the effects of marketing food to children. It concluded that "statistically, there is strong evidence" that exposure to television ads is "associated" with obesity in children under 12 years old.

"We can't any more argue whether food advertising is related to children's diets. It is," says Ellen Wartella, executive vice chancellor at the University of California at Riverside and a member of the committee that produced the IOM report. "The evidence is overwhelming that we need to shift the marketing practices," says Dr. Wartella, who also sits on a committee that advises Kraft Foods Inc. on "health and wellness" policies.

In what may be its most controversial finding, the IOM report recommends that food companies -- which spend an estimated $11 billion a year marketing to kids -- stop using licensed animated characters such as Shrek and Scooby-Doo to sell "low-nutrient and high-calorie" products. The authors of the report call on companies to make sure licensed characters "are used only for the promotion of foods and beverages that support healthful diets for children and youth."

That would represent a change in game plan for many food makers, who have long relied on colorful, familiar cartoon characters to help their youngest customers identify high-sugar, high-calorie products on supermarket shelves. Back in 1935, in one of the earliest instances of character licensing, Post cereals licensed the rights to a new movie character, Mickey Mouse, and when the character started appearing on boxes of Post Toasties, sales of the cereal soared. In the 1950s, Continental Baking Co. hired the puppet Howdy Doody to pitch Twinkies on his popular TV show.

Since then, animated characters from the Cookie Monster to Scooby-Doo have been a mainstay of food marketing. Even Kraft Foods didn't swear off the use of licensed characters earlier this year when it pledged to cut back on junk-food marketing by establishing more-rigorous nutritional standards for the foods it advertises to children under 12. The IOM stopped short of recommending against the use of characters created by companies for the express purpose of selling food, such as Kellogg Co.'s Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam.

The report's broader finding of an association between TV ads and obesity directly contradicts the food industry's long-standing resistance to efforts to correlate marketing campaigns with poor eating habits in kids. While not binding, the report's conclusions will be hard for the food industry to ignore.

A 2004 IOM study on childhood obesity suggested that ads play a role in the increased consumption of calorie-laden foods and called for a dialogue between food companies and public-health advocates. That report helped spur Kraft's decision about limiting food advertising to kids.

Every new children's movie and TV show seems to bring a new crop of licensing deals: Mike Myers as the Cat in the Hat appeared on Kraft's Lunchables Deep Dish Pizza Mega Pack, and the Hulk appeared on Kraft's Nabisco Nilla Wafers. Kellogg Co.'s Froot Loops features characters from the recent Walt Disney Co. animated movie "Chicken Little"; McDonald's Corp. gave out play figures of characters from the movie with Happy Meals during the fall.

Meanwhile, General Mills Inc.'s Betty Crocker fruit-flavored snacks feature child-friendly characters including Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird. Dora the Explorer shows up on Kraft Nabisco Teddy Grahams and Nabisco Fruit Snacks. Kraft's macaroni and cheese comes in the shape of characters including SpongeBob SquarePants, who also appears on the front of the box.

"We think the issue of licensed characters is important," says Mark Berlind, Kraft's senior vice president of corporate and government affairs. Kraft says it recently dropped Clifford the Big Red Dog from packages of Teddy Grahams.

General Mills declined to comment on the IOM report. It has argued there isn't a link between advertising and obesity. A Kellogg spokeswoman declined to comment on Kellogg's use of licensed characters.

McDonald's says it doesn't see why it shouldn't use cartoon characters. "All of our food is good food," says Jackie Woodward, vice president of global marketing for McDonald's. She says the company is "having conversations" with the entertainment industry about using licensed characters to convey health messages.

As many as half of the promotional efforts for established kids' food brands are tied to licensing, according to George Carey, president of Just Kid Inc., which helps companies develop youth-marketing strategies. "Most of the best-in-class kid marketers rely heavily on developments in the kids' entertainment space," he says.

Some companies have put characters to work promoting healthy eating. On boxes of Kellogg's Froot Loops, Chicken Little gives baseball lessons, instructing kids to round the bases by choosing healthy breakfast foods from a list including pizza and soda. Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon recently signed an agreement putting SpongeBob on bags of spinach.

Industry-wide changes in how characters are used would require companies to agree on the definition of "healthy" food, something they are loath to do. "We get concerned about sending the wrong message," says John Faulkner, spokesman for Campbell Soup Co., which sells Pepperidge Farm Goldfish and SpaghettiO's. "No food is bad food as long as it's in the context of a balanced diet."

 

Sarah Ellison and Janet Adamy, The Wall Street Journal. December 7, 2005

Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.