by Marion Nestle
Mar 17 2008

A ban on marketing food to kids?

Consumers International and the International Obesity Task Force have just proposed a ban on global marketing of food to children that goes much further than the voluntary promises of food product companies like Kraft, Kellogg, and PepsiCo. The proposal calls for:

  • No radio or TV advertising of junk foods (including beverages) from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
  • No marketing of junk foods on social-networking Web sites and other forms of new media.
  • No gifts and toys to promote junk foods.
  • No use of celebrities to market junk foods.
  • No use of cartoon characters to market junk foods.

Why are they doing this? Because voluntary industry efforts are not working. I wonder how far they will get with this thoughtful and hard-hitting proposal.

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  • Gee, will they label cheese a junk food like they did in the UK, because of the fat content? I don’t mean processed cheese, that is clearly not real cheese.

    I guess what I am getting at is the criteria for the “junk food” label. Because if it is mostly fat, and not the sugar and starch content, then sugary cereals and flavored, highly sweetened yogurts will get a pass and many real foods won’t. And I am betting that the Kelloggs, General Mills, and Dannons won’t take this sitting down, but some other industries will not be able to defend their perfectly good products as handily.

  • I think I’m becoming a libertarian. My first reaction was, “What, do TVs not have off switches any more?”

    Also, and I realize this is pretty irrational of me, but I cherish as some of my fondest memories sitting down with my sister on Wednesday afternoons (payday for my dad, and therefore grocery day) to scoop out all of the Cap’n Crunch to find the toy, then carefully putting it all back in the box. There, I admitted it.

  • Kati

    Oh, if advertising were limited to TV, life would be grand.

    The grocery store is an insane place these days. I can’t think of a single category of food untouched by cartoon characters, movie characters, dinosaur shapes, bold artificial colors, toy prizes, 40% table sugar by weight, or some genius food developer’s idea like getting dinosaur eggs to hatch out of instant oatmeal.

    Even perfectly fine foods get tainted when marketers try to sell to kids. Just look at the sections for yogurt and cereal.

    Sure these things are fun. I remember a couple years ago I received a report from a trade mag that a focus group was done with children and the stunning result was that kids need to have more fun with their food. But it’s food. Kids will be fine if they spend a few moments each day eating actual food instead of being entertained by it.

    As for how they will determine what is a junk food, I agree that is a huge problem. But why not disallow advertising of any food to children?

  • Anton

    I think we ascribe WAY too much power to advertising. The notion that kids eat “junk food” (by whatever your definition is) simply because it is advertised is naive and simplistic.

    Kids eat junk food because THEY LIKE THE WAY IT TASTES. At best, advertising provides some social legitimizing of the choice, but you can’t make kids LOVE a food, just by advertising it.

    If it were that simple, the activisits and do-gooders could simply run commercials on how ‘cool’ it is to eat broccoli or sprouted wheat. Then the problem would be over — that is, if you assume that children eat what is advertised.

    The ongoing problem is, most kids apparently LIKE the taste of skittles and twinkies. You could advertise tofu and skinless chicken breast all you want, and it won’t make kids like them any more.

    A simplistic answer: Force junk food marketers to make their food taste crappy.

  • Right on, Anton. And we didn’t buy the cereal for the toy, either, it was just a side benefit.

    My comment about the TV and the off switch was really one about parental responsibility. We as a society can’t agree what constitutes junk; a lot of powerful lobbying groups have an interest in redefining Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs as “healthy whole grains”; and vegetable farmers can’t afford to advertise, anyway. If we took Kati’s suggestion that we not allow any food marketing to kids, period, would that mean there could never be a PSA promoting vegetables and fruit? And heck, does fruit juice (terrible junk food in my opinion) count as fruit? But if you allow an exception for fruits and vegetables, you’re not banning all food advertising, and then you get into a big argument about what to ban and what not to ban.

    And besides, as Kati pointed out, if you stop all advertising to kids, foods are still prominently displayed in stores. Other kids have junk food in their lunch boxes. Some people, even good parents, allow their kids to stay up late once in a while, past the 9 pm ban, and children sometimes visit web sites that are geared to people other than children or read newspapers or magazines that are geared to adults. Can we keep ads for Doritos out of Time magazine because some kid might read it? We cannot prevent children from knowing that junk foods exist.

    Kati, by the way, you wrote: “I can’t think of a single category of food untouched by cartoon characters, movie characters, dinosaur shapes, bold artificial colors, toy prizes, 40% table sugar by weight, or some genius food developer’s idea like getting dinosaur eggs to hatch out of instant oatmeal. ” I was puzzled by this, since I hardly ever see any of this when I go grocery shopping. Then I realized that I always stick to the perimeter of the store. The only place you’ll find this kind of junk on the perimeter is in the so-called “yogurt” section.

  • Kati

    True, true. Advertising limits won’t stop kids from wanting junk food. I’ve always thought it’s a start, though. I can’t think of a good reason to allow manufacturers to market food to kids. Those who are for parental responsibility taking care of how kids eat should also be for ads that target only the parents.

    I’m not sure kids would always prefer some of those foods you mentioned, Anton, if they weren’t also electric green with shrek on the front. Yes on the sugary cereals but maybe not everything. And there is that study where preschoolers claimed to like the fast food branded items more than the same item unbranded.

    Some of the perimeter of the store is still preserved from this, as Migraineur mentions. Here’s a thought there, though. Bread is not largely marketed to kids. But there is highly processed white bread – without much going for it nutritionally. My children have grown up so far eating whole wheat bread and never, never ask for white bread, even though it’s there on the shelf. Why? Perhaps since it isn’t marketed to them with cartoons and toys, it’s not on their radar screen, so they’ve never begged for it, so they’ve never really had it, so they don’t eat it.

  • I think you have a great point, Anton.

    Also, if parents buy something or serve it to the kids, then it legitimizes it in their eyes. It says to them, mom/dad might call it junk food, but if they give it to me then it’s really ok, or not so bad.

  • Is there any good reason not to ban junk food advertising to kids?

  • Jack at Fort & Bottle asks: Is there any good reason not to ban junk food advertising to kids?

    Who decides what is junk food? Is cheese junk food? In the UK they apparently think it is, whether it is Cheese-Whiz or a nice farmstead Cheddar, because of the fat content, but processed cold cereals that just barely slide under the sugar radar are not labeled junk food and can be advertised.

    I think we have to be careful about banning things. It’s a slippery slope and it’s hard to get a grip once the slipping starts.

    I’m not a fan of advertising anything to children, BTW. In fact I think exposure to advertising to children should be minimal, if at all. But that is more the parents’ domain.

  • I’m with Kati on parental responsibility. At the end of the day, the parent who controls the purse strings determines what kids develop a taste for, and what tastes they are free to indulge. Improving our national food literacy and eating habits has to start from a simple decision: should we be buying/eating this? From this question we can make better choices about what to stock in our schools vending machines and limit the opportunity for kids dipping into their own purses.

  • Fentry

    I’m straddling both sides of the argument here: I don’t think there is a free-speech argument for advertising, as opposed to political, religious and artistic speech.

    Imagine a childhood where no advertiser could target any children under the age of 14, when reasoning skills have more fully developed…a childhood with almost no advertising…

    But I do believe too in parental responsibility. While I’m a sample size of 1, my mother was a nutrition hawk and didn’t allow these junk foods in our house: I’ve never developed a taste for them. Quite frankly, I didn’t find them appetizing as a child, but repugnant, because they were so different from what I was accustomed to.

  • Kati

    Back to Jack’s question – is there any good reason not to ban ads to children (junk food or other food in my opinion)? I’d be interested in the core of those answers. The importance of parental responsibility isn’t a reason to not ban ads to kids.

    It’s as if corporations have had all the freedom to create the poor food environment. Marketing and market research work well – kids like highly sweetened bland food, silly foods and cartoons on food, marketers talk to kids and learn about it, then marketers provide more of the same. Then we bash parents because they aren’t keeping it away from kids.

    I know giving us what we want it is the basis of our free market economy, but when it starts to do harm, limits need to be placed.

    Implementation sounds tough, ie, what exactly qualifies as ads marketed to kids. Time of day? Cartoonish or not? But actually, food companies know exactly who each ad is targeted to, down to age, gender and income.

  • I can think of a few reasons.

    Like all legislation, it would create new levels of bureaucracy – regulations need to be interpreted in order to be implemented; someone has to answer all the questions you are asking – how do we decide what constitutes marketing to kids? And the people who do this in our system are bureacrats called regulators. They turn 10 or 20 page bills from Congress into 1,000 page interpretations of the bills spelling out every detail and attempting to answer every question. This is an incredibly expensive process, which in turn increases the tax bite. And you, Kati, are the person paying those taxes. This decreases your buying power and makes it harder for you to purchase healthier foods (which are more expensive).

    Besides, our current system has an almost built-in guarantee that any question of interpretation will not favor you, the consumer, over the big corporate interests. The current philosophy about regulation is that you can’t have someone with no experience in the field regulating that field. (I know this from my many years in banking.) And who knows more about an industry than the insiders – the very people who have an interest in interpreting the regs in the way most favorable to business? I had a friend who was a banker who left to join one of the banking reg agencies, because he wanted to protect the consumer. After a year, he was back working for a bank – he said the regulatory climate was so biased for the big players and against small banks and consumers that he felt he could do a better job and exert more influence by going back to working for a bank.

    So banning food advertising to children seems to me to be an expensive non-solution to a very real problem.

  • Fentry

    Migraineur’s comments have really struck a chord with me. There is a lot of truth in them.

    But couldn’t there be some simple, seemingly incontrovertible rules like:

    1. No advertising during television for children.
    2. No cartoon advertising during the day.
    3. No advertising for toys or candy or junk food during the day.–?

  • My nephews and my husband’s cousins kids live in Norway. Norwegian kids are facing the very same issues (though perhaps not to the same extreme degree) that American children are facing (rising weight and chronic health conditions, less active outdoor play, more consumption of processed sugar and starchy foods, etc.), yet children’s TV and advertising to children is quite strictly regulated. I just don’t think it makes enough of a difference, even if it seems like a good idea on some fronts. It is the larger culture of commercialism and consumerism that surrounds children in Westernized countries, and if Norway can’t regulate commercial influences away, the US certainly can’t.

  • Fentry,

    For bureaucrats nothing is incontrovertible. My experience is in banking, a highly regulated industry, but I’m sure it would be the same in food production. Here’s how I think it would go.

    Define “day.” Define “children.” Define “television for children.” Define “cartoon.” Define “toy,” “candy,” and “junk.” Because everyone will have a slightly different answer to these questions, the bureaucrats now have to hold public hearings, which are time consuming and expensive. The people who hear about the public hearings are largely the big players, who have staffers whose job it is to comb the media looking for items of interest. These big boys inundate the bureaucrats with mail, which requires staffers to read, which costs money. The big boys also go to the public hearings, which people like moms and dads probably can’t afford to do unless they happen to live within a day’s drive of Washington and have some job flexibility. After the hearings, the bureaucrats write giant reports, “summarize” their findings in documents that are praised (yes, really) for their length and complexity, and put those out for comment, which generates more e-mail. When the comment period is over, they write a regulation, which is often so complicated that no one ever reads it, except for corporate lawyers for big food companies who comb it looking for loopholes.

    All of this is expensive – and we haven’t even gotten to enforcement yet. And because the process skews toward big business, your initially simple, incontrovertible law has become a byzantine regulation that doesn’t actually solve the problem you wanted it to.

    And as someone said earlier, television isn’t the only place kids are exposed to advertising. You can’t control when a kid will pick up a magazine, so does that mean magazine ads would be OK (because they are spatial rather than temporal) or banned (just to be safe)?

    I do have sympathy for the problem. I don’t have children yet, but I hope to some day. I have to tell you I’m worried about how difficult it will be to raise kids to make smart choices in the toxic cloud of advertising, peer pressure, and ubiquitous bad food. But the fact that I recognize it as a problem doesn’t mean that I want to throw an expensive, ineffective solution at it.

  • And how would advertisement regulations work in the store, which is often where “the rubber hits the road”. Even kids who don’t see the TV ads will see these (now I know why my mother rarely took us grocery shopping). That’s where I see even well-meaning parents shopping with kids really “caving in”, because they want to stop the tantrums and whining and get out of there. Companies pay big bucks to place colorful cartoony packages of “sugar bomb cereal”, complete with prize inside and such right at eye level of young kids. Shopping with even well-behaved young kids doesn’t allow much time or concentration to read labels; most parents are just trying to figure it out as they go and at the grocery store is a terrible place to be making informed food decisions (but that’s another issue).

    Lower sugar, high fiber “twigs and bark” cereal are placed higher than a young child’s gaze, where the “mature” eyes can’t miss ’em. Same with “sugar bomb yogurts”, and various other “products that pretend to be nutritious food” marketed for children. There’s much more in marketing to kids than just TV ads and PBS pseudo-educational show sponsorship. Will regulations extend to plain brown packaging and alternative product shelf placement?

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  • Fentry

    Thanks Migraineur–

    I agree that industry has an advantage in the legislative drafting and implementation process. I also agree that industries can even “capture” their regulators and look for or develop loopholes to laws and regulations.

    But we still have a need of some baseline regulation, in food as well as in banking. To be perfectly candid, it seems like both industries have policed themselves so badly, it’s almost as if they’re begging for regulation–

  • “Begging for regulation.” Would that it were true.

    I guess I think of regulation as the same kind of escalated arms race you see in bacterial evolution – every time we come up with a better antibiotic, the bugs find some way to resist it. And every time we come up with a better consumer protection law, the corporations outsmart us.

    With bacteria, the solution is the counterintuitive “less is more” approach – stop flooding the environment with antibiotics so that they will work when you truly need them. With corporations, who knows?

  • What does the song say? Teach your children well or something like that.

    We talk about commercials and what they are trying to get us to do, dissecting them and coming up with other ideas. My 9 yo old now talks back to the TV ads aimed at kids, especially the food ads (from whose side of that family did that come?).

    I suppose soon I’ll have to explain ED to him, too. ED drugs are heavily advertised on the soccer channel, more so than the fast food ads.