Give kids identical foods, some in McDonald’s wrappers, some not, and ask the kids which ones they like best. Big surprise: they like the foods labeled McDonald’s much better, especially if they often eat at McDonald’s or watch a lot of television. And these were little kids–aged 3 to 5. That’s the gist of a new study from the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a journal not on my usual reading list so I am indebted to the UC Berkeley Center for Family and Community Health for sending it to me. Actually, the effect of branding on kids’ taste preferences is so easy to demonstrate that even kids can prove it. In my book Food Politics, I quote a science fair project done by a couple of 13-year-olds in Portland, OR who did the same experiment with their classmates’ soda preferences. This is why companies are so eager to put their brand in every possible place where kids can see it. It makes kids want to eat brand-named foods (what I call “kids’ foods”) and not want to eat foods without brands. As for adults….?
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The Spring 2007 issue of the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics and the April 2007 issue of the Maryland Law Journal both have collections of excellent articles on childhood obesity. The articles talk about how to use laws and regulations to improve school food and restrict marketing of junk food to children, among other actions. Tired of waiting for food companies to make voluntary improvements? These articles provide lots of good ideas for encouraging companies to do what they promise.
I’m confused. Is Simpsons a movie or a lengthy ad for Burger King? And is this about marketing to children or what? You can watch the ads and decide for yourself.
A bunch of food companies promised today to stop marketing the worst of their junk foods directly to kids. I wish I could be more optimistic about what seem like amazingly generous pledges by these 11 companies. Will they really stop marketing junk food directly to young children? Remember: these are the very same companies that formed an alliance just a couple of years ago to protect their First Amendment rights to market junk foods to kids. So the companies are not making these promises as acts of altruism. They are forced to do this by public concerns about their role in promoting childhood obesity (for which there is much evidence and by fear of regulation if they don’t. Unfortunately, the history of what companies promise and what they actually do about marketing to kids is not reassuring. Kraft and McDonald’s, for example, have made similar promises in the past. Yes, they fulfilled some of the promises, but mostly they appear to be conducting business very much as usual. Food companies, of course, are caught in an impossible dilemma: even if they want to do the right thing, they can’t if it means losing sales. Maybe—just maybe—the companies will behave better because so many are joined in the effort. But who will hold them accountable? I say, let’s give them six months and see if they do what they say.
I am at the Festival of Ideas in Adelaide this week and checked out the local supermarket. Shrek was everywhere. I counted at least ten special displays of Shrek-illustrated foods positioned at the ends of 5 aisles, along one entire wall (with a blow up Shrek doll), and in stand-alone areas. Shrek III has arrived in Australia but does Australia really need a store full of Shrek-green Froot Loops (devoid of fruit, of course), Shrek cheese-flavoured snacks, Shrek-illustrated chocolate flavoured biscuits, and Shrek candies? And a local McDonald’s also has a Shrek tie-in. This is about one thing and one thing only: marketing junk food to kids. Not a good idea.