Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Unanswered questions about children's food and beverage advertising

In July, based on information collected through federal subpoena, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) produced a detailed report on the massive extent of children's food and beverage advertising (see earlier post).

A concurring statement (.pdf) by Commissioner Jon Leibowitz most strongly criticized two industries whose practices "leave a tinge of heartburn": the beverage and fast food restaurant industries.
First, the disproportionate amount ($474 million) to market sugary carbonated beverages to adolescents is striking – that’s nearly $20 per American teenager in 2006. The marketing efforts must be working; on average, adolescents get eleven percent of their calories from soft drinks. Studies show that those who drink more soda are more likely to become overweight. To their credit, the major carbonated beverage marketers entered an agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and have committed to phase out the sale of full-calorie sodas in schools, shifting to lower calorie and more nutritious beverages. Wouldn’t a responsible next step be to extend this effort beyond the schoolhouse door, and curtail at least some marketing of full-calorie soft drinks to school-age youth – including teens – whether on television, via the Internet, in stores, or elsewhere?

Second, the big dollars to promote fast food restaurants to children are also somewhat hard to stomach: the $520 million for advertising and the toys included with fast food children’s meals was more than twice the amount spent by any other food category to target children under twelve in 2006. Some inner city low-income neighborhoods have numerous quick service restaurants but few grocery stores or markets that sell nutritious foods, so many of the children most at risk for obesity rely on fast food as a mainstay of their diets. Studies show that over-consumption of fast food likely contributes to overweight and obesity. I recognize that McDonald’s and Burger King are working to develop new, lower calorie menu items for children. But surely more can be done to add options to fast food menus and improve families’ incentives to order healthier choices.
Some leading soda and fast food restaurant companies have refused to participate in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a Better Business Bureau project that hopes to forestall legislative action by demonstrating that the food and beverage industries can regulate themselves voluntarily.

Why isn't Yum Brands, including Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, on the list of participating companies? Stare at these brand logos and ask, "Why do they insist on unrestrained marketing to children during an epidemic of obesity?"


Why isn't Schweppes, including the Dr. Pepper and Snapple brands, part of the Initiative? An early press release from the Initiative listed Cadbury Schweppes as a founding member, but after a corporate reorganization, only the Cadbury Adams candy part is currently listed in the Initiative's website. The Initiative's six-month progress report (.pdf) covers some trivial issues at great length, but steers so far clear of criticizing companies that it never once mentions the absence of the major beverage company that was listed as a founding member of the Initiative. Stare at this brand logo, and ask yourself, "Did Schweppes commit to restrained advertising to kids, but then change its mind? If so, why?"

And what about Nestle? Just as the FTC report was coming out in July, the Better Business Bureau heralded the last-minute participation of the multinational food corporation, which has a long history of controversial marketing practices. The Initiative has lenient standards for company pledges, as a condition of participation, but Nestle has not yet made public any standards on the Initiative's list of pledges. It is unseemly for the Initiative to give Nestle such an eager press release last July while simultaneously accommodating months of continued foot-dragging on the details of the company pledge. In response to an email query, the Initiative expresses "hope" that the company's pledge should be posted later this month. Stare at this logo, and ask, "How strong will Nestle's pledge be when it is finally shared with the public?"

Half-hearted and long-delayed participation, as well as outright non-participation, undermine the incentives facing competitors that do participate and weaken the prospects for meaningful self-regulation as an effective response to concerns about unhealthy food and beverage advertising to children.

3 comments:

My Year Without said...

Interesting...

I just came across "Parents Against Junk Food" yesterday and found some similar information...

SCORPIO said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ali B. said...

The interests of the food companies are just fundamentally at odds with the interests of children and parents.

I'm absolutely for regulation of marketing to children - especially those who are too young to make any sense of the ads (and did you see how Coke recently said they have "never" advertised to kids? Guess those cartoon polar bears are for me...). But the reality is, they are in business to sell their (unhealthy) products, and it's in their interest to have my kids eat them. That's the whole reason why they exist. I simply can't count on them to restrict themselves.

Our solution was simple: we don't have TV. The kids watch videos, but they only see commercials when they're at grandma's house (and once you DON'T have TV for a while, you really see how awful and obnoxious those commercials are).

Now that Daily Show offers full episodes online, I don't feel like we miss a thing.

Just discovered this blog, via Ethicurean link, and I love it.