by Marion Nestle
Feb 11 2010

What Mrs. Obama’s campaign does not do: food marketing to kids

Mrs. Obama’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity did not mention food marketing to kids.  But check the latest research.

Researchers at UCLA took a careful look at the correlation between watching commercials on TV and childhood obesity (Their paper is in the February 2010 American Journal of Public Health).  Kids who watch commercials on TV are more likely to be obese than kids who watch non-commercial TV.  Commercials, of course, are largely for junk food and kids see a lot of them.  The authors conclude:

steering children away from commercial television may have a meaningful effect in reducing childhood obesity…The existence of many high-quality, enjoyable, and educational programs available on DVD for all ages should make it relatively easy for health educators and care providers to nudge children’s viewing toward less obesogenic television content [my emphasis].

Relatively easy?  They have to be kidding.  Food commercials are ubiquitous in kids’ lives.

For example, Lisa Sutherland and her colleagues at Dartmouth took a look at the prevalence of food brands (mostly junk foods) in movies from 1996 to 2005 (Pediatrics, February 2010).  There are loads of such placements, and movies aimed at younger kids tend to have the most.

As for industry self-regulation, Kelly Brownell and his colleagues at Yale have plenty to say about how it’s not working and what would be needed to make it work (also in the February American Journal of Public Health).

Michelle Obama may not be able to touch this one, but Congress can.  And it should.

  • Anthro

    Now that corporations are “persons”, I doubt that the congress (esp. the senate) will be able to muster any kind of majority for any legislation that would not violate the “persons” right to “free speech”. I wish I were kidding, but I am beginning to feel that I am Alice and have just fallen down the rabbit hole.

    TV is now to ingrained into home life, I see little hope on this front. Parents could easily thwart the marketers by simply turning the damn thing off, but this is not likely, I realize. People used to comment on how bright and verbal my children were. I would say maybe it’s because they don’t watch tv. This always brought wide eyes and even gasps. We also ate dinner together and actually talked about the events of the day. There was an hour or so of PBS in the evening viewed by the whole family. No tv’s ever in anyone’s bedroom or anywhere but the den.

    I may be a relic from another time, but people need to think about what they really want for their children and do what needs to be done to create an environment conducive to that outcome.

  • Erin

    On Dianne Rehm this morning they talking about Let’s Move, and they talked a lot about curbing advertising to children as one of the things she’s planning on doing.

    I’m more concerned with the backlash the program is already getting, for “stigmatizing fat people” and that sort of thing.

  • http://www.FeedYourHeadDiet.com Ken Leebow

    Let’s be honest. This isn’t going to work. Mrs. Obama has Tiki Barber, an NFL star, at her side and President Obama does a PSA with Drew Brees — all very heartwarming. Now, let’s take a look at the reality . . . http://bit.ly/bcHl05

  • http://www.twitter.com/irizaurus Christine Irizarry

    Dear Dr. Nestle, I mentioned your Web site on Twitter & was immediately spotted & followed by the American Beverage Association. (I’m just a private person, unemployed, formerly in media/publishing.) Marketing strategies are evolving quickly. Thanks for your Web site! Best wishes,
    Christine Irizarry

  • http://foodfitnessfreshair.wordpress.com FoodFitnessFreshair

    Of course junk food commercials are contributing to childhood obesity. Kids are vulnerable, and commercials that make food not only look absolutely delicious, but make it look “cool” as well are naturally going to draw kids to these foods. I’m not sure restrictions on these commercials will ever be realistic in the U.S…If you don’t want your kid to become overweight, don’t let them watch much TV in the first place, and instead have them go outside and use their imaginations! Problem solved.

  • http://www.drsusanrubin.com Dr. Susan Rubin

    Ken Leebow, you made an excellent point about the NFL and other junk that they endorse.

    Does anyone remember the Bush Administration’s anti obesity deal with the giant green ogre? I hope in my heart of hearts that “Lets Move” does not become another Shrek re-run.

    Remember, those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it!

  • Erin B

    I see another Erin on here today, so guess I have to differentiate myself from now on!

    Anyway…about the UCLA research and steering children away from commerical television. First, I agree with whoever stated above that children are advertised to EVERYWHERE, not just commercials on TV.

    Second, I am constantly frustrated with the claims from scientists, industry, government, etc. that put all the responsibility on the individual (or in this case the parent). Sure kids should be doing other things than watching TV all day, but the bottom line is that it should ALL be on the shoulders of the parents and kids to avoid unhealthy advertising. There have to be changes all ALL levels – and that includes in what industry produces and markets to children. The example of the NFL is prime – should we tell people they shouldn’t watch the Super Bowl, a HUGE demonstration of what your children can do if they just get out and “move,” just because what is advertised most is beer, chips, sugary drinks, etc.?

    Accountability and change on all fronts is what is needed, but as long as we solely blame the individual, corporations and government will never be held accountable.

  • Erin B

    I see another Erin on here today, so guess I have to differentiate myself from now on!

    Anyway…about the UCLA research and steering children away from commerical television. First, I agree with whoever stated above that children are advertised to EVERYWHERE, not just commercials on TV.

    Second, I am constantly frustrated with the claims from scientists, industry, government, etc. that put all the responsibility on the individual (or in this case the parent). Sure kids should be doing other things than watching TV all day, but the bottom line is that it should not ALL be on the shoulders of the parents and kids to avoid unhealthy advertising. There have to be changes all ALL levels – and that includes in what industry produces and markets to children. The example of the NFL is prime – should we tell people they shouldn’t watch the Super Bowl, a HUGE demonstration of what your children can do if they just get out and “move,” just because what is advertised most is junk like beer, chips, sugary drinks, etc.?

    Accountability and change on all fronts is what is needed, but as long as we solely blame the individual, corporations and government will never be held accountable.

  • Erin B

    p.s. Sorry for the double comment!

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  • Anthro

    Erin B –

    I agree that all levels need to be addressed in the process of meaningful change, but the primary responsibility for one’s children is that of the parents. It is parents who can watch a food commercial with the child and then TALK about the false premise and point out the ways that the marketer tries to prey on children. Also the parent can serve healthy food during the game and talk about that as well. Or how about muting all commercials and do something else while they are on. Of course, all this requires that you only allow your children to watch TV when you are there and I think few modern parents will make that commitment.

    I had to put my children in private school (at great personal sacrifice) because the public schools began building curriculum around TV content and my kids didn’t know what was going on! Today they watch more TV than I would like to think, but they DO continue the message that advertising is evil to their own children and they DO limit their children’s viewing.

    I don’t like this responsibility being dumped onto parents either, but the picture is not likely to change much or quickly, so parents who care must step up and meet the challenge.

  • Erin B

    Anthro –

    I totally agree with everything you say. All of those things you mention: serving healthy food, talking about healthy food, muting commercials, and limiting TV time are all very important. I just hate the notion that it is ALL on the parents. It is reminiscent of the claims that food safety is all the responsibility of the consumer (essentially, choose the right foods, cook them to the right “doneness” and make sure your house is free of bacteria and there will be no problem). Sure all of those things are important for the consumer to do, but sometimes that is not enough. I feel the same goes for children and obesity. The parents need to step up to the challenge, but so does the industry and the gov’t. Haha, as Hillary Clinton once said, “it takes a village.”

  • http://trialanderrorhomeec.blogspot.com Rachel

    I think there is definitely a correlation between the consumption of junk food and children’s exposure to advertising for it. However, I think the difference between kids who watch tv with ads and kids who watch tv without ads is more complex. I’d be willing to bet that parents who keep their kids away from television advertising are also more careful in terms of other lifestyle choices and pass those habits on to their children. For anecdotal evidence, I know that the only kids I knew growing up (in the ’80s and ’90s) who did not watch tv with commercials were also living in households that were either vegetarian or pescetarian. Not surprisingly, they had much healthier diets than my ad-watching, fast food eating friends.

  • Joanne

    We have a family story that I tell on myself around this issue. I was never able to completely limit TV because my husband wanted to watch it, and anyway ads come from other sources as well.

    One day when our daughter was five and we were at the grocery store, I had refused the usual request for some sugary cereal. She said, “Well, when *can* I have it? When?” Caught a bit off guard and not thinking too clearly, I thought of some date unimaginably far into the future and blurted, “OK, when you’re ten.”

    On the morning of her tenth birthday, she announced that it was time for her to reap her promised reward. We bought her some rainbow colored sugar in a cereal box. Children have long memories for what they want!

    Today ads are even more pervasive, and she’s fighting the same battle with her daughter. But at least she grew up nutritionally aware. It is very hard for parents to deal with these issues on their own. Thank you for keeping the useful information flowing.

  • Erin B

    Joanne – your story about cereal is a reminder to me about all the ways that children still pick up on what “junk” food they want to eat no matter how much tv they watch. I, too, as a kid did not have sugary cereal in the house. I also was not a big tv watcher, and even when I did, it was not shows aimed at children. Needless to say, I was not exposed to a lot of junk food advertisement as a kid. But I wanted it like no other. How did I know? Because every time I would go to a friends house for a sleep over or a party, I would see that others had it. Every time I went to sleep away camp or a sports camp at a university, sugar cereals were staring me down and convenience stores full of doritos tempted me on every corner. At sleep away camp, we had a “store” where we were allowed to buy one piece of candy and a soda every night.

  • Erin B

    My point is that advertising is not the only way children are exposed to these things, and it’s nearly impossible for a parent to limit tv, do all the proper education, and be 100% successful. Like I’ve said before, a more comprehensive effort is needed, and Mrs. Obama’s strategy is a good first step in the right direction.

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  • Cassie

    I have to agree with Rachel –my husband and I don’t watch commercial TV, so obviously neither does our daughter. She did watch DVD’s, and so do we. However, even now at 9 years old she’s not interested in sitting down and watching anything unless she’s sick. I didn’t want her to feel too different from her school friends, so I’ve offered to let her watch episodes of Hannah Montana and High School Musical, but she’s seen bits at friends houses and says its all boring –she doesn’t care to see it.

    We also tend to eat relatively healthy food, and sugary cereals and soda were simply never an option. She gets sugary desserts, but she understands that those are desserts, and you have to eat healthy foods as your meal, to balance things out.

    I would bet that many homes where the kids don’t watch commercial TV are also homes where parents spend time educating their kids about nutrition and model good habits.

    This is not to say that I think it’s okay to market to kids –I don’t think it’s okay to market to anyone! And I imagine if those commercials went away, the health of children in homes where TV is often a form of daycare would improve.

    Plus, think of how much calmer the parents would be, given that they wouldn’t have to deal with the constant nagging of kids who are fed advertisements for stuff they don’t need all day long.

  • http://www.artifacts-talismans.com Brigid

    We lived in France the year my kids were 2 and 3, and we didn’t even own a TV. They still managed to find the French analog of junk food (Capitan Choc—like a chocolate-filled Twinkie!) in our local grocery store, and there was a big McDonald’s with an indoor play space just down the road. But they also walked to school, and everywhere else, so I don’t think it did them too much harm.

  • http://theorganicgreencownextdoor.blogspot.com/ Smokey

    As parents we set examples. It is our responsibility to prepare our kids for the “real world”. They are always going to be presented with information, from which, they will make their decisions. These decisions include diet and food choices.

    The examples we set, the teaching we provide, and family lifestyle are our best tools to combat peer pressure and marketing propaganda. Provide a healthy diet and teach about nutrition…practice what you preach…nurture independent thinking…despite all, parents are still the biggest influence on children

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  • http://siegelp.typepad.com/blog/ ocdgirl2000

    Well, of COURSE, Mrs. Obama can’t mention anything about junk food marketing to kids! Neither can any politician,from either side of the fence, House or Senate, nor can any President who has run for office, or PLANS to run for office! The Junk Food companies run the entire BIG FOOD marketplace, and that includes all public areas, entertainment, grocery stores, unions, manufacturing, food and beverage, restaurant businesses, you name it..now, the lobbyists??….they have money in their pockets…who is going to get the money for their election?? make any sense now??

    All you have to do, is take a tour of any “big grocery market chain store”, and walk in the front door..the first thing you see is “the tower of babel” (that’s what I call it!LOL..mountains of sugary sodas piled up, CASES of the aluminum cans or plastic bottles..ready to come toppling down..watch out!!) …or the other collection you CAN’T MISS!! the “wall of sin” (the huge wall that’s packed to the ceiling with mega sized doritos or chips bags~)

    Some times I wonder what happened to this world? I was born in 1950. When my mother took me to the grocery store, there were very few choices, there was one kind of pretzel, there were 3 kinds of potato chip, and there were fritos, That was it! Nothing else!! They came in one size, there was no negotiating, you got one bag for the whole week, and it got divvied up for lunches in little wax bags that folded over.

    We had no sodas or sugary drinks for lunch!!We were mandated to drink milk!It was a requirement!! We had to sit quietly in the lunch room for 30 minutes when eating, no playing around, and when done, we had to clean up after ourselves..only then, we HAD to go outdoors and exercise! What happened????

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