by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Marketing to kids

Dec 14 2011

Update on marketing to kids

I subscribe to The Lancet, and always enjoy reading its editor’s weekly Offline column.  In October, editor Richard Horton wrote about how  government obesity policy needs to be based firmly on scientific evidence.

And what is that evidence?

On this question, the evidence is utterly clear.  Thanks to the work of the best scientific minds in obesity research, the most reliable evidence shows that the government’s plan should include taxes on unhealthy foods and beverages, front-of-pack traffic-light nutrition labeling, reductions of junk food and drink advertising to children, and school-based programmes to reduce television viewing and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption (Lancet, 2011;378:1451).

If you care about public health evidence, that’s what it shows.  But doing these things goes against the business interests of food companies and they are doing everything they can to oppose such science-based measures.

In the U.S., the Sunlight Foundation has just released a report detailing the amounts of money food companies have spent on lobbying to block federal attempts to set nutritional standards for marketing foods to children (see previous posts).

Big companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Viacom, McDonalds, General Mills, and Time Warner have indicated on official reports that they have lobbied on the controversial proposed guidelines; all together such companies have reported spending more than $37 million on lobbying this year.

The Sunlight report lists reported lobbying expenses (for example, Coca-Cola $4.7 million, General Mills $660,000).  It also points out that

…Over all public relations were handled by Anita Dunn, formerly communications director at the Obama White House, at the firm SKDKnickerbocker Consulting.

Anita Dunn is of special interest because of her previous position at the White House.  Now she’s working for the not-so-loyal opposition.  Marian Burros reported on this switch for Politico:

Dunn, who served as White House communications director, is a senior partner at SKDKnickerbocker Consulting, which is handling public relations for the food industry’s campaign. Switching sides isn’t uncommon in the incestuous world of Washington consulting and lobbying, and the food industry coalition seeking to scuttle the voluntary guidelines argues that they are actually enforceable regulations in disguise that could lead to billions in lost sales.

Dr. Horton’s comments in Lancet imply that the British government isn’t doing much better.

As for the European Union (EU),  Food Chemical News reported on December 8 that major food companies— McDonald’s, Burger King, Coca-Cola, Danone, Kellogg, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble and Unilever, as well as the European Snacks Associations—have just pledged to promote only healthful products on their websites aimed at children under age 12.

By “healthful,” they mean products that meet “better-for-you” criteria.  Food Chemical News cites a study suggesting that European children now see 79% less advertising of really bad junk foods on kids’ TV than they did in 2005, and 29% less across all TV programs.

The study did not say whether sales of those products were down too. If not, this could explain the willingness of companies to extend the voluntary restriction to websites aimed at very young children.

All of this would be much simpler for parents if governments paid attention to the research.  If they did, they would:

  • Tax unhealthy foods and beverages
  • Require traffic-light front-of-pack labels
  • Stop junk food and drink advertising to children
  • Institute programs to reduce television viewing
  • Institute programs to reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption

Taken together, these might actually make some progress in reducing childhood obesity.

Dec 9 2011

EWG says kids’ cereals have too much sugar

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is getting interested in childhood obesity.  It released a report on sugars in kids’ breakfast cereals.

The report shows—no surprise—that kids’ cereals are really cookies in disguise, typically 40% -50% sugars by weight.   Kellogg’s Honey Smacks topped the list at 55%.

Michele Simon’s analysis of the report notes that these levels don’t even meet Kellogg’s commitment to responsible marketing, a pledge to “apply science-based Kellogg Global Nutrient Criteria to all products currently marketed to children.”

I’ve been reading reports like this since the 1970s when Center for Science in the Public Interest published them at regular intervals.  Not much has changed.

Courtesy of Kellogg, I have a collection of copies of Froot Loop boxes dating back to the year in which this cereal was first introduced.  I thought it would be interesting to check the sugar content.

Froot Loops, Sugar content, grams per ounce

YEAR GRAMS SUGARS PER OUNCE LABEL
1963-71 Lists calories: range 110-114
1972-75 Lists carbohydrate, not sugars
1976-78 14 Lists sucrose and other sugars
1979-92 13
1993-95 14 Nutrition Facts: sugars
1996-2006 15
2007 13
2008-11 12

In 2005, Kellogg tried a version with 1/3 the sugar—10 grams—but it didn’t sell and quickly disappeared.

Companies are trying to reduce the sugars by a little, but this seems to be the best they can do.  It’s not enough.

As the EWG press release explains, some cereals are better than others.   It notes that I recommend:

  • Cereals with a short ingredient list (of additives other than vitamins and minerals).
  • Cereals high in fiber.
  • Cereals with little or no added sugars (added sugars are ingredients such as honey, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, brown sugar, corn sweetener, sucrose, lactose, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup and malt syrup).
  • Even better, try fresh fruit and homemade oatmeal.
Oct 19 2011

Consumer groups complain to FTC about PepsiCo’s digital marketing to kids

This morning, the Center for Digital Democracy announced that consumer groups have filed a complaint (and see the appendices) with the Federal Trade Commission against PepsiCo.

Why?  Because of the ways PepsiCo uses digital marketing techniques to push its products to children and adolescents.

These include:

  • Disguising marketing as video games, concerts, and other “immersive” experiences
  • Claiming to protect teen privacy while collecting a wide range of personal information
  • Using viral techniques that violate FTC guidelines

The report points to Pepsi’s Hotel 626 video game as a particularly egregious example.

Also this morning, Public Health Law & Policy released a comprehensive report on the kinds of digital marketing tactics that are now used routinely by fast food, snack food, and soft drink companies. The report identifies specific marketing campaigns from PepsiCo, McDonald’s, and others that exploit kids’ use of digital media.

I can’t wait to see what the FTC does with this.

In the meantime, here’s Michele Simon’s enlightening report on what it’s like to play Hotel 626.

And Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group sends these case studies on digital marketing to kids:

 

Oct 14 2011

“Better-for-you” products better for food industry? Only if they can be marketed as such.

A study released yesterday reports that so-called “better-for-you” (BFY) foods (those low in salt and sugar, high in fiber or with added vitamins, for example) may account for only about 40% of company sales, but they account for more than 70% of growth in sales.

Hudson Institute, October 2011

According to the press release accompanying the report, companies that sell BFY products “record stronger sales growth, higher operating profits, superior shareholder returns, and better company reputations than companies that sell fewer BFY products.”

The public health implications?  According to the report:

  • Placing more emphasis on selling BFY foods and beverages is an effective pathway to improved sales, profits, shareholder returns, and reputation.
  • Proof that bottom lines can benefit when companies have a greater percentage of sales from BFY foods could accelerate progress toward the development and marketing of more nutritious foods.
  • Public health officials and policymakers need to be aware of food and beverage companies’ core business goals in order to work effectively with them to address the obesity epidemic.

I emphasize the third one because it sounds so much like a veiled threat.

I think it means that if public health officials want the food industry to make healthier food products, they better let food companies market their products any way they like:

  • To children with no restrictions
  • Using cartoons on packages of products aimed at children
  • Using health claims with no restrictions
  • Using front-of-package labels that emphasize “good-for-you” nutrients

Or else.

Or else what?  Just watch what the food industry will do (and is doing) whenever public health officials try to restrict advertising to children or demand that that companies put nutritional “negatives” on front-of-package labels.

Here’s CNN Health’s account (I’m quoted) and the one in the Wall Street Journal (I’m not).

Oct 12 2011

House holds hearings on nutrition standards for food marketing to kids

Reports are coming in on the House hearings on the IWG report recommendations.  The IWG, recall from the previous post, is an Interagency Working Group of four federal agencies attempting to set nutrition standards for foods allowed to be marketed to kids.

This first report comes from Broadcasting & Cable:

The first panel of a joint hearing Wednesday on government-proposed food marketing guidelines featured government officials explaining that the principles, announced last April, are only voluntary recommendations to Congress that industry can ignore if they chose, while legislators, primarily Republicans, countering that they represent Big Brother government intruding into meal planning for families and a focus on marketing, without scientific backing, rather than focusing on more physical activity.

Republican lawmakers, it seems, want more science.  That’s always step one in undermining public health proposals: attack the science.  Subsequent steps, you may recall, include attacking critics, focusing on physical activity, and blaming personal responsibility for obesity and its consequences.

According to Healthwatch, Representative Henry Waxman (Dem-Calif)

Compared Republican defenders of unbridled food marketing to children to past champions of the tobacco industry. [He]  drew parallels between Wednesday’s hearing on proposed voluntary marketing restrictions and a 2003 hearing during which some Republicans promoted the safety of smokeless tobacco.

“I just find this an amazing hearing,” Waxman said. “The only thing I can analogize it to is after all the tobacco issues we discussed for many years, Republicans took charge and we never heard anything more about tobacco. Then, suddenly we had a hearing about tobacco.

And the hearing was about how smokeless tobacco should be encouraged as a way for smokers to give up smoking. It was geared to promoting an industry that no doubt supported financially many of the members. I wonder if this hearing is about the same subject.”

What I find most disturbing is the FTC’s backing down on the recommendations which were agreed upon by four federal agencies and voluntary.  CNN reports that David Vladeck, director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, said:

The coalition of government agencies is “in the midst of making significant revisions” to the original proposal.

Among the changes he suggested are narrowing the age group targeted and focusing on children aged 2 to 11 instead of up to age 17 and allowing marketing of the unhealthier foods at fundraisers and sporting events.

Vladeck also said that his agency would not recommend that companies change packaging or remove brand characters from food products that don’t qualify, as was originally suggested in the guidelines.

“Those elements of packaging, though appealing to children, are also elements of marketing to a broader audience and are inextricably linked to the food’s brand identity,” Vladeck said at the hearing.

This, as I keep pointing out, is about protecting corporate health at the expense of children’s health.

Sad.

Oct 10 2011

Rumor alert: White House backing off from standards for food marketing?

Sometimes when I hear rumors that I can’t corroborate, I keep fingers crossed that they aren’t true.  Here’s one.

Rumors say that the White House has caved in to food, beverage and advertising lobbying groups on the nutrition standards for food marketing to children developed by the Interagency Working Group (IWG).

Recall: the IWG’s members—the FDA, FTC, USDA, and CDC–produced recommendations for nutrition standards for marketing foods to kids (see previous posts).

The food and beverage industries think that if the standards are adopted, they will have to abide by them, thereby losing sales.  They do not want restrictions on how, when, and where they advertise their products to kids.

Rumors say that the FTC—the agency that regulates food advertising—is being pressed by the White House to back off.

Rumors say the FTC is withdrawing the proposedstandards for teens except for some in-school marketing, and that the FTC’s explanation is that  “to be successful in this endeavor food companies must be given leeway to shape an approach that will promote children’s health, without being overly burdensome on industry….”

Could the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s  October 12 hearings on the standards have anything to do wth this?   Or the tough memo prepared by committee staff in preparation for the hearing?  The staff memo raises highly critical questions about the FTC and the IWG report.

The proposed standards, please recall, are voluntary.  And I didn’t think they were all that restrictive (see previous post).

But if the rumors are true, even this administration can’t do anything to limit  food marketing to kids and we are right back where we were in 1979, the last time the FTC tried to do so.

Please say it isn’t so.

Addition 1: FTC has now posted its prepared testimony: “As a result of the many comments we received from various stakeholders…the Working Group is in the midst of making significant revisions to its preliminary proposal. The anticipated revisions go a long way to address industry’s concerns.”

It gets worse:

The Commission staff believes that this approach resolves many of the flashpoints that generated strongest industry concern.

For instance, FTC staff has determined that, with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17 within the scope of covered marketing….In addition, the FTC staff believes that philanthropic activities, charitable events, community programs, entertainment and sporting events, and theme parks are, for the most part, directed to families or the general community and do not warrant inclusion with more specifically child-directed marketing.

Moreover, it would be counterproductive to discourage food company sponsorship of these activities to the extent that many benefit children’s health by promoting physical activity.

Finally, the Commission staff does not contemplate recommending that food companies change the trade dress elements of their packaging or remove brand equity characters from food products that don’t meet nutrition recommendations.

Addition 2:  Margo Wootan of CSPI provides a copy of her written testimony for the IWG .

Addition 3: Here’s the written statement of Dale Kunkel of the University of Arizona.

Addition 4, October 11Adweek headlines its story on this fiasco, “Ronald McDonald, Toucan Sam to get pardon from feds?”

Oct 6 2011

More–a lot more–on food marketing to kids

Video: Today, the Oakland-based Prevention Institute released it’s new 2- minute, everything-you-need-to- know video: We’re Not Buying It: Stop Junk Food Marketing to Kids.  Use it!

Commentary: David Britt and Lori Dorfman have a terrific editorial in The Hill today on why everyone needs to support the government’s proposed voluntary nutrition standards for food marketing to kids.

Newsletter: And I’ve only just discovered the UK-based International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO)’s weekly news briefing on articles and events in  food marketing to children.

Here is just a sample from last week and this week.  I’ve mentioned some of these in previous posts but it’s great to have them collected in one place:

UK: BBC radio programme on marketing junk food to kids

US: consumer laws can be invoked to protect children from junk food marketing

US: Toys turn healthy foods into ‘happy meals’  for more  click here

India: Ban ki-moon calls upon kids’ processed food makers to act with integrity

US: Packaging gets US high schoolers to pick carrots over cookies

UK: Government rejects calls for ban on junk-food advertising

UK: Alcohol giant set to ‘target children’ through Facebook

Fight about the role of soft drinks at the ADA

Australia: Hungry Jacks to put broccoli on fast food menu

Coca-Cola to invest $3bn in Russia, 2012-2015

Australia: food federation accuses consumer group of promoting unhealthy foods – and uses traffic light criteria to back their argument

US ‘spends $ billions subsidising junk food products’  to view full report Click here

Scientists support the administration’s Inter-Agency Working Group on food marketed to children Click here to view

Some 75 health and marketing experts from the nation’s universities call on President Obama not to abandon the Federal Trade Commission-led nutrition guidelines that would recommend strict limits for marketing foods to children. Click here to view details

 

Oct 5 2011

Vending machines in schools? Get them out!

I was fascinated by the story in yesterday’s New York Times about the problem schools are having as they try to replace the junk foods in vending machines with healthier options.

Students, it seems, prefer to buy the junk foods.

The Times photo says it all:

What are these machines doing in schools at all?

Schools didn’t used to have vending machines.  Somehow kids managed to survive for a few hours not eating between meals.

If schools must have vending machines—a highly debatable point—how about making everything in them be something you’d like your kid to be eating?

Just a thought.