by Marion Nestle
Aug 26 2011

Surprise! Food companies still market to children

At the end of 2005, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) produced an unusually hard-hitting  report on food marketing to children.  The report complained about lack of cooperation from food companies in providing data.  Even so, the report concluded that “marketing works.” It is highly effective at getting kids to demand and eat junk foods.

The report gave the food industry two years to cease and desist.  If it didn’t, federal regulation should be considered.

Well, five years have come and gone and some of the people involved in the IOM report have just published a progress assessment in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine:  Despite lack of evidence in their review of the literature for real progress, the investigators’ assessment is anything but hard-hitting:

Food and beverage companies made moderate progress; however, limited progress was made by other industry subsectors. Industry stakeholders used integrated marketing communications (IMC) to promote primarily unhealthy products, which threaten children’s and adolescents’ health and miss opportunities to promote a healthy eating environment.

Miss opportunties?  That’s one way to put it.  Here are the conclusions:

Diverse industry stakeholders have several untapped opportunities to advance progress by promoting IMC to support a healthful diet; substantially strengthening self-regulatory programs; supporting truthful and non-misleading product labeling and health claims; engaging in partnerships; and funding independent evaluations of collective efforts.

The paper acknowledges:

the tensions among private- and public-sector stakeholders to promote a healthful diet to children and adolescents…conveying consistent and appealing messages; ensuring transparency by sharing relevant marketing data; obtaining company-wide commitments…balancing freemarket system goals with protecting young people’s health; and committing to monitor and evaluate all efforts.

Oh those pesky freemarket system goals.  Food companies cannot stop marketing junk foods to kids because the foods are profitable and their job as publicly traded companies is to grow profits every quarter.

That’s why federal regulation is essential, a point not mentioned by these investigators or in the accompanying editorial.  Instead, the editorial calls for counter-advertising:

The experience with tobacco is instructive. The most rapid period of decline in the use of cigarettes occurred not after television advertising was banned but in the period before the ban when counter ads were mandated as a proportion to the product ads.

I remember that period well.  The counter-advertisements were so effective that kids insisted that their parents stop smoking.

But those ads were mandated.  That’s still government.  Food companies cannot and will not stop marketing to kids on their own.

Note to physicians: you can 1 CME credit by reading this paper.

  • Anthro

    So–the troll calls himself “Ben” today!

    Sometimes I think the rich (and their lesser-endowed but equally ideological minions) are really getting worried that the message is actually getting out that advertising to children is effective and is undermining public health–that there is a conflict between totally unfettered markets and that “free” just–isn’t (and in fact comes at a very high price, in the short term health problems and the long term costs to everyone.

  • You nailed it. It’s all about profit. And I remember very well the anti smoking ads. I’m always amazed when I see young people smoking. What with all the negative sentiment on it.

  • Anthro


    Yes, me too, but far fewer of them are smoking today than in past generations. Many of them will quit as well, thank goodness.

  • Pingback: News Feed: August 29, 2011 | JBF Food Conference()

  • Jon

    I’m assuming the title is ironic, since, well, a stroll down the cereal aisle still shows the same cartoon characters, with the vitamins (and now “with whole grain”, meaning there may be some whole grain, but it’s still mostly sugar, defeating the purpose of the whole grain) so the parents don’t realize they’re basically letting their kids, as Michael Pollan so elegantly put it, mainline glucose.

    But yes, the antismoking ads were mandated. No company is ever going to willingly sponsor an ad to keep you from buying their product. This would be like the RIAA showing an ad for Kazaa. Not going to happen.

  • I posted a comment on this post several days ago, but it hasn’t appeared and ones submitted after it have been moderated. Is there some posting rule of yours I’m breaking? I know I listed my website’s address in my post but from looking at other comments that seems permissible — and my website is food industry blog which seems very pertinent.

    The bottom line is that I’d like to be a part of this commenting community and if I’m doing something wrong, please let me know what it is so I can follow your guidelines.

    Bruce Bradley

  • I agree that federal regulation is necessary to stop the food industry from marketing unhealthy foods to children. However, this seems difficult to carry out because the issue is very complex.

    The food industry is motivated by money and will try its best to make a profit. Politicians also have ties to the food industry so they might interfere with the process of passing legislation to restrict the marketing practices of food companies. Also, it’s still hard for the public to acknowledge that certain foods have the same health effects as cigarettes.

    Imagine if there was counter-advertising for children’s cereal, for example. It still seems hard for people to accept that cereal is unhealthy especially when it’s thought to be part of a healthy breakfast for so long. Some children’s cereals have such high sugar content that it’s like giving children candy for breakfast.