by Marion Nestle
Dec 28 2012

The FTC’s latest report on food marketing to kids: glass half full or empty?

Last Friday was a big day for releasing reports that federal agencies would rather keep quiet.  As I discussed in my previous post, the FDA released its long overdue environmental impact report on GM Salmon.

Today, let’s take a look at the FTC’s latest report on the state of food and beverage marketing aimed at children. This is a follow-up to the report the FTC issued in 2008.

The new report cites progress.  From 2006 to 2009, its press release says:

  • Total spending on food marketing to youth ages 2-17 dropped from $2.1 billion to $1.79 billion, mainly because of less spending on television advertising.
  • But spending on new media, such as online, mobile, and viral marketing, increased by 50 percent.
  • Cross-promotions that link marketed foods with popular children’s movies and TV characters increased from 80 children’s movies and TV shows to 120.
  • Cereals had 0.9 gram less sugar and 1.6 grams more whole grain.
  • Fast food was a  little lower in calories, sodium, sugar, and saturated fat.

The report concludes:

Despite the commendable progress, this report identifies areas where further efforts could be made by the food and beverage industry and the media industry to improve the nutritional quality of foods marketed to youth.

Whether you see this as good news or not such good news depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

If you are a half-full type, you will rejoice that food companies are voluntarily improving the nutritional quality of their products even if the improvements are small.

If you are a half-empty type (which, in this case, I am), you will be dismayed at the lack of real progress in reducing the marketing of junk foods to kids.

Companies must sell more and more products to grow their businesses.  They are under pressure to reduce such marketing and to improve the quality of the products they sell.  Neither change is likely to increase sales.   Hence: resistance to change.

As Andy Bellatti points out, small nutritional improvements are unlikely to have much of an effect on health: reducing the sugars by 0.9 grams can be interpreted as “better for you” but does not necessarily make a product a good choice.

And as Michele Simon’s interview with former marketer Bruce Bradley suggests, the data on which the FTC based its positive assessments may well have been gamed by the companies reporting it.

As I read this report, it provides plenty of evidence that stopping food and beverage marketing to kids is the issue that matters most to doing something to reverse childhood obesity.

The election is over.    Maybe Let’s Move! can revisit the marketing-to-kids issue.  Someone needs to do it.  And soon.


  • John

    As long as people consider Fruit Loops (and just about any other cereal) a choice for breakfast because it has some fiber and natural flavorings, we are a long way off from addressing the real problem with food in this country.

    As I read here some time ago, most of the food marketed as better for you is like saying it’s better for you to get hit on the head with a brick twice instead of three times.

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  • Thank you for discussing the real issues. I have been troubled for years by the of marketing “crap” to kids. I recently developed a truly whole grain nutritious snack product just launched in schools — trying to make a small impact!

  • Alyssa

    Why can’t we attack obesity at the federal level and offer a tax refund for those who get a yearly check up and are reported by a physician as a normal BMI (exceptions would be made for those that are very muscular)? This would give an incentive for parents to watch what they and their children eat.

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  • Pingback: National Assoc for Media Literacy Education: Amy Jussel, Resource Roundup - Shaping Youth()

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