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Snack Attack

Conversation around childhood obesity has been heating up everywhere from newscasts to boardrooms to PTA meetings, and for good reason: childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First lady Michelle Obama has made combatting it a pet project with her Let’s Move! campaign, the goal of which is to solve the problem within a generation, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s prime-time crusade against processed food in schools, Food Revolution, is galvanizing the talk about the need for nutritional lunches. The climate is ripe for the healthy kid bandwagon to accelerate.

For companies that sell food to kids -- food often high in fat, salt and sugar -- the spotlight on children and how they eat is a potential public relations nightmare. But marketers are not taking the healthy food movement sitting down.

Some are reformulating ingredients, others rethinking their marketing strategies, and still others creating programs they hope will encourage kids to exercise. The question for critics is, are they doing enough?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group, issued a report in March grading 128 food and beverage manufacturers, chain restaurants and entertainment companies on how they market food to children. Ninety-five of them received an F -- Mars received the highest grade, a B+ -- with food and beverage manufacturers doing “more” to address marketing to kids than chain restaurants and entertainment companies, says CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan.

Kids’ marketing expert Rachel Geller, chief strategic officer at The Geppetto Group, the WPP-owned agency that specializes in youth culture, sees the need for change as an opportunity. “It’s [something] almost any company can get involved with, either with new products or new programs,” she says.

Many already have. Between 2002 and 2006, for instance, food makers in the Grocery Manufacturers Association (the GMA has 300-plus members) tweaked 10,000 products to make them “healthier,” according to the association. (It’s looking to update the statistic based on efforts from 2007-09). Most recently, PepsiCo announced it would stop selling sugar-filled drinks in primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012. And next month, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation -- a consortium of nearly 80 U.S. retailers, food manufacturers and nonprofits aimed at reducing obesity by 2015 -- will roll out plans for a nutrition and exercise elementary-school curriculum.

Perhaps the biggest reform effort has come from the U.S. Council of Better Business Bureaus, which, in 2007, created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a consortium of food and beverage manufacturers that have agreed to self-regulate their ad programs.

Sixteen industry heavyweights -- including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Burger King, Campbell Soup, McDonald’s and General Mills -- have signed on. According to the CFBAI, the program initially required companies to devote 50 percent -- recently changed to 100 percent -- of their advertising directed to children under 12-years-old “to better-for-you products and/or messages that encourage good nutrition or healthy lifestyles.” (For example, participants must reduce the use of third-party licensed characters in ads and stop placing goods “in editorial/programming content.”)

Everyone came in at 100 percent, says BBB vp and CFBAI director Elaine Kolish, and four—Coca-Cola, Mars, Hershey and Cadbury -- chose to stop advertising to kids under 12 altogether. “That’s a huge deal,” says Kolish. “I applaud them for it.”

Some critics are not impressed with industry efforts. “Parents have to do their part, but we’re making their part very difficult,” says Frederick Zimmerman, lead author of a food and marketing study, “Associations of Television Content Type and Obesity in Children” -- published in February -- and chair of health services at UCLA’s School of Public Health. The study found that the more TV commercials kids 12-and-under watched, the more they weighed, especially those under 7.

“It’s like saying to a baseball player, ‘We want you to go out and hit 50 home runs, but we’re going to tie your hands behind your back,’” Zimmerman adds. He feels the CFBAI doesn’t go far enough, but that “the proof is in the pudding.”

“Right now, marketers are undermining parental authority over food issues as much as they can get away with,” says Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University and author of Food Politics.

Advocacy groups and parents also want to see changes made to the ingredients put into kids’ food. Since the establishment of the CFBAI, participating companies have reformulated or created more than 100 food or beverage products to meet self-imposed improved nutritional standards, says Kolish, as well as freshened up offerings, such as the apple slices in McDonald’s and Burger King’s kids’ meals.

There’s more to come. General Mills, for one, has pledged to reduce sodium by 20 percent in more than 600 products by 2015, across 10 product categories, according to a company rep. It has also pledged to further reduce sugar in its cereals worldwide to single-digit levels of grams per serving.

Next month, Mott’s (owned by Dr Pepper Snapple Group) will launch its Medleys line, which promises “two total fruit and veggie servings magically hidden in every 8-ounce glass.” (The secret ingredient? Carrot juice.) “We’ve created a tasty way for moms to ‘sneak in’ servings of vegetables,” says Allison Methvin, Mott’s brand marketing director. Although she wouldn’t provide sales figures, Methvin said the Mott’s for Tots line -- advertised as containing 40 percent less sugar than other juices -- has been “extremely popular” since its 2007 launch.

Some cereal and snack manufacturers have voluntarily changed nutrition labels. For example, Mars has added prominent calorie-count info to the front of many of its candies and easy-to-read, at-a-glance nutritional info, and Kellogg’s uses “Best to You” banners on cereal boxes to highlight its positive nutritional information.

Lisa Powell, a research scientist at the University of Illinois who recently received a $2 million federal grant to study kids’ obesity and advertising, sees an inherent problem with companies self-regulating. They’re “each creating their own individual nutritional definitions, so there’s no standard,” she says.

Kids’ advocates also lament that food marketers could do more to get kids excited about healthy snacks. But some marketers claim that’s easier said than done. Even when parents succeed in teaching kids about the importance of limiting junk-food intake, getting kids to snack on wholesome, natural products can be a tough sale.

Geppetto’s Geller says manufacturers have been trying to make fruit- and veggie-based snacks taste better for a while. “We have worked with virtually every major food manufacturer to develop healthy food for kids,” she says. “ The problems they encounter are complicated and don’t fit nicely into an evening news sound bite. ... Having a healthy profile with integrity [for instance], often has to cost more. [And] moms are unwilling to buy snacks that their kids won’t fully enjoy. After all, snacks are the fun part of their daily menu.”

Better nutrition is just one piece of the childhood health puzzle. Getting kids off the couch is another.

Nintendo’s popular Wii Fit markets itself, in part, as a way to exercise. To date, 225 million units have been sold worldwide, according to the company. And food marketers have long championed playground time and physical education efforts, pouring philanthropic dollars into initiatives.

Pepperidge Farm’s Goldfish brand’s Team Xtreme program, launched in 2008 (initially as The Goldfish Games), revolves around a Web site that features more than 100 “outside games” kids can play, tools for inventing their own games, a scoreboard that tracks playtime, NBA All-Star Dwyane Wade cheering them on and prizes. Since August, 51,000 site users have racked up more than 140,000 hours of offline play. Pepperidge Farm wouldn’t comment on whether the program, which it promotes through product packaging and print, Web and TV ads created by Geppetto, has impacted sales.

So, where do marketers go from here? Depending on whom you ask, marketers are either well on their way to helping improve kids’ health, or have miles to go.

Of the exercise programs, nutritionist Nestle says, “I’m all for getting kids moving, but if you really want kids to maintain a healthy weight, you have to get them to eat less.” But she acknoweldges marketers’ inherent dilemma.

“Obesity causes a conflict of interest for food manufacturers,” she adds. “On the one hand, they need to please stockholders. ... On the other, they need to appear to be doing something about obesity. ... That’s a dilemma not easily resolved.”

One thing is clear: Companies that don’t stay ahead of the debate could lose the support of consumers and the patience of policymakers.

Consumer watchdog group Corporate Accountability International -- the folks who sent Joe Camel packing in the ’90s -- is now calling for the head of fast food’s most celebrated mascot, Ronald McDonald. (McDonald’s has publicly stated that Ronald is not used to directly promote food in advertising or in personal appearances.) Also, the country’s new healthcare law requires chain restaurants to post the calorie counts of their menu items, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has begun taking aim at misleading front-of-package food labels.

But even critics understand the complicated nature of wanting to help solve the obesity epidemic by making changes in how companies market to kids. “Changing advertising might help move us in the right direction, but it’s obviously only one factor,” says the University of Illinois’ Powell. “We need to make changes in all facets of life and this is one of them. ... No one should actually be thinking [advertisers are] solely to blame. We didn’t get here because of one single thing. It’s many forces working simultaneously."

Kolish, of the CFBAI, says from their perspective, marketers’ progress has been substantial: “I’m not saying there isn’t more work to be done,” she notes. “But we knew that consumer-package companies weren’t going to become green grocers overnight.”

Michelle Goodman is a columnist for ABC News and author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life.


Michelle Goodman, Adweek. April 26, 2010

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