Under the Influence
There is a childhood obesity epidemic in America as well as other industrialized nations. In an ongoing struggle to combat obesity: parents, schools and the government aim to identify the parties that are responsible for fattening our kids. Due to billion dollar food ad campaigns directed at children, the food advertising and television industry remains the primary target. Television and in this case the food industry, are used as scapegoats allowing us to ignore the multiple factors that influence the health of a child. Ignorance fuels the fire of this epidemic because people refuse to take responsibility. The average Joe could tell you that food advertising has an affect on children’s food choice, but the real questions are the degree which children are affected by food ads; the variety of marketing strategies used to reach those children, and what makes those ads affectively persuade brand preference. It is essential to then identify all other factors that contribute to an unhealthy food choice. It is unfair to assume that television and food advertising are solely responsible for the childhood obesity epidemic that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cause roughly 400,000 deaths per year (Story and French). If there are any realistic hopes to curve the rate of obese children, it must be discovered how greatly food ads affect food choice, what other factors contribute to unhealthy food choice and lifestyle, and lastly what those in a position of influence can do to curve this devastating epidemic.
It is common sense to embrace the concept that food ads persuade a child’s food choice, after all this is why advertising exists. Exposure to an idea, product, or brand, is likely to increase the desire for that idea, product or brand. This exposure is accomplished through the use of several types of media. According to Mary Story and Simone French in Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US, the U.S. food system accounts for the second largest advertising market in the American economy, with its means in the form of television, newspapers, billboards, radio, and magazine. Because not all these forms of advertising appeal to children, it is difficult to reach the exact number of dollars spent on advertising directed solely at children, however Story and French claim:
It is estimated that just over one billion dollars is spent on media advertising toward children, primarily on TV. Over $4.5 billion is spent on youth-targeted promotions such as premiums, sampling, coupons, contests, and sweepstakes. About $2 billion is spent on youth-targeted public relations, such as broadcast and print publicity, event marketing, and school relations. In addition, roughly $3 billion is spent on packaging especially designed for children (Story and French 115)
With such a strong emphasis on advertising towards children, it is important to understand how the mind of a marketer works. Television plays a role in nearly all food advertisements, whether it is the medium by which they are received, or through the use of familiar and popular characters commonly appearing on programming intended for children. American children watch an average of one hour of TV daily for the first six years of their lives, while eight-18 year-olds watch up to three hours. It is estimated that children view from 20,000- 40,000 television ads per year, an average of one food ad every five minutes, totaling up to three hours of food ads each week (Daniel’s A-6). US food manufacturers spend over 75% of their advertising budget on TV ads, while US fast-food restaurants spend all the way up to 95% (Story and French).
The primary message in these advertisements is to buy unhealthy, inexpensive processed foods that are high in fat, sodium, and sugar. With children as the primary demographic, foods lacking nutritional value such as candy, sugary cereals, soda pop, and fast-food are an easy sell. A marketer’s job becomes much easier when the product being advertised is already desired by its intended audience. In contrast, if a food company invested money into promoting peas and carrots, there simply will not be the same profit turn around. Energy dense foods cost drastically less to produce; cookies and potato chips are examples of energy dense food (Drewnowski 3). Consuming foods with high energy density can result in consuming too many calories without even knowing it, and still be hungry for more food. These foods, french fries for example, are very high in energy, but obviously low in vitamins and minerals, may be satisfying at the time of eating, but perhaps a 1/2 an hour or an hour later, you may be hungry for more food. So while you’ve eaten a lot of calories with the french fries, and you’re hungry again so quickly, the likelihood of weight gain is probable if food such as french fries are included in the diet regularly. After collecting food prices in a Seattle supermarket for a 2003 study: Drewnowski compared the energy density of foods to their energy cost. He found that the cost of cookies and potato chips was 20 cents/MJ, which was considerably lower than the energy cost of fresh carrots, 95 cents/MJ (3). Fats and oils, sugars, refined grains, potatoes and beans are produced at the lowest energy cost. Because these types of food are inexpensive to produce, they reflect the greatest profit potential for members of the food industry. Foods that are low in energy density such as fresh carrots cost more to manufacture, while the demand for them isn’t there in the American diet. This gives the food advertising industry little to no reason to market them the American people.
Americans simply don’t consume enough fruits and vegetables to warrant a marketable demand. According to Bonnie Liebman’s “The All-American Junk Food Diet”: “79% of Americans ate no fruits or vegetables high in vitamin A, 72 % ate no fruits or vegetables rich in vitamin C, 82 % ate no cruciferous vegetables (such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, or cauliflower), 41% ate no fruits at all and 49 percent ate no vegetables other than potatoes, beans, or salad.” Children are not drawn to greens and fruits in the same way as cereal and cookies, this makes advertising these products a risk. If consumer’s diets are severely lacking in a food group, there is no motivation to advertise that product to the consumer. In a report titled “Out of Balance,” released by the Consumers Union, the government’s “5 A Day” campaign to promote healthy eating, the advertising expenditure totaled $9.55 million dollars. The message of the campaign was to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. This message is dwarfed when compared to the $11.26 billion spent by the food, beverage, and candy and restaurant industry in 2004.
Messages promoting poor nutrition reach children by being paired with programming intended for preschoolers on such stations as “Nickelodeon”, “The Disney Channel”, and “PBS.” By appealing to children where they are most comfortable, in front of the television with their favorite characters, a relationship is formed between a child and a brand. While a TV programmer seeks habit formation in its audience, meaning, at this time on this day an individual will find his/her self watching a specific program, a food marketer seeks the connection between a particular brand and that already existing TV viewing habit. This relationship is the primary goal for a marketer. Daniels demonstrates that the single purchase of a product is not the intention, rather because “companies woo tots loyalty by linking logos, licensed characters and slogans with fun and happiness . . . there is mounting evidence that food marketers are trying to hook the youngest children as lifelong customers” (A-6). This concept demonstrates the marketing theory that children develop brand awareness before reflecting desires to purchase. If a child repeatedly recognizes a brand, they are more likely to choose that brand once capable of purchase influence. Good business is always reflected in repeat customers, and based on billion dollar profits; the food industry “keeps um coming”.
Disney and PBS promote themselves as ad-free, yet sponsorship for programming intended for toddlers is dominated by fast-food companies. Fast-food sponsorship equals fast-food messages, and these messages account for 32% of the sponsoring messages on PBS preschool programming, and 36% of the messages on Disney’s toddler block of shows (Connor 1478-1485). This ad-free claim made by Disney and PBS holds striking similarity to a concept known as product placement. Product placement is an alternative form of advertisement that involves the placement of branded goods in a context that would usually be devoid of advertisements. Examples of this are movies, TV shows and video games; they do not directly come out and say, “Buy this product”, instead a main character will be drinking a Pepsi, or talking on a Nextel phone. In movies, product placement typically costs $50,000 – $100,000 depending on the film (Story and French). American Idol is a perfect example of this scenario, Coke is a primary sponsor of the FOX show, throughout the hour long program the judges are drinking Coke products while contestants act out skits featuring coke products; although they never tell their audience to drink coke, they are indirectly saying it the entire time. Ronald McDonald appears with shows for toddlers on Disney and PBS, while the cartoon mouse Chuck E. Cheese finds his way into preschool programming on PBS. These tactics are forms of product placement: there aren’t characters on the show eating chicken McNuggets promoting McDonalds, but in placing Ronald in programming the same agenda is accomplished. A food marketer’s dream plays out something like this, a child watches Sesame Street on PBS, child thinks about Ronald McDonald and his ‘Happy Meals’, child persists mom or dad to go McDonalds, child eats McDonalds, child loves McDonalds, child eats McDonalds for life.
According to Morgan Spurlock’s “The truth about McDonalds and Children”, in 2003 happy meals accounted for 20% of all meals sold, that’s near $3.5 billion of their annual revenue. In the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood’s release of “The Facts About Marketing,” children under the age of 12 are said to influence $500 billion in purchases each year (3). The “golden arches” are hardly the end all in this demonstration of food attachment through likeable images. If you want to find aisles and aisles of television characters, surely the place to go is the supermarket. In a review done by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), of 15 foods bearing Nickelodeon characters in a Washington, DC, Supermarket, 60% were for junk foods. Among them were “Fairly Odd Parents Orange and Crème miniatures” and “Sponge Bob Square Pants Wild bubble berry pop tarts Pop Tarts” (Careful Kids are Watching). With images of familiar TV shows scattered throughout a supermarket, a child is drawn to a multitude of products and brands based on not the content of package, but the package itself. According to Story and French a child usually makes its first purchase request near 24 months of age. Not surprisingly, 75% of the time that request is made in a supermarket. The reason this marketing tactic is used so frequently by Nickelodeon? In the words of John Higgans, “Cranking out cartoons, developing new ones and selling ads is expensive. Collecting checks from Kraft for Dora the Explorer fruit snacks is not” (Junk-Food Suit Gives Nick Bellyache). Higgans continues to reveal that the licensing of characters makes Nickelodeon almost 200 million dollars a year. If Nickelodeon’s profit from character licensing demonstrates the success of selling an advertised product, then why don’t we see more health conscious foods adopt this marketing strategy? The answer is money. The budget simply isn’t there for core food products to compete or even compare in the advertising market.
It is critical to understand how a child is able to perceive an advertisement. Unlike a television show, with the primary purpose of entertainment, advertisements are designed to sell a product. Most people are able to distinguish when a show ends and a commercial begins. It is argued that children lack the mental capacity to recognize an advertisement. If young children lack the ability to realize an advertisement is a persuasive tactic capable and likely to deceive them, they will not question that advertisement, and are more likely to believe and be persuaded to request the purchasing of a product. In the 1979 hearings over the pervasiveness of advertising on children, the presiding officer dictated “To what extent can children between the ages of 2 and 11 defend against persuasive techniques used in these commercials, such as fantasy or cartoon presenters, premiums, limited information and various associative appeals” (Wartella 172). In simple terms, can a child realize that although “Ronald McDonald” is a clown, he is selling McDonalds’ products? Prior to age 7 or 8 years, a child is more likely to view advertising as fun, entertaining, and unbiased information (John 183 213) With a plethora of research to understand a child’s cognitive ability to perceive adds, there are varying results as to the exact age a child recognizes commercials. After interviewing a sample population of 389 first, third, and fifth grade boys, Rossiter and Robinson found that a child’s age most closely affect his ability to perceive selling intent. Only 53% of the first graders comprehended selling intent, while nearly all the fifth graders were able to recognize it (Rossiter and Robinson 137). Also In the study when asking children, “What is a TV commercial?” and “What do commercials want you to do?” results indicated as in other studies, (Adler et al., 1977; Bever, Smith, Bengen and Johnson, 1975) that nearly all children under the age of are un able to communicate the selling purpose or pervasiveness found in ads; it is not until between the ages of 5-9, kindergarten-third grade, that children can communicate this selling purpose (Wartella 173).
In each study several thought processes occurred before a child could recognize the purpose of ads. According to Rossiter and Robinson there is a five step process beginning with a child distinguishing between a commercial and regular programming. The next two steps are for a child to identify that the commercial has a sponsor, and that he/she may very well be part of an intended audience that the sponsor desires this ad to reach. In doing this a child can discover their significance in the equation between marketers and consumers. With marketers competing for their brand loyalty, children dictate the power to choose McDonalds or Burger King, but most of them don’t grasp the concept that there is a market for their loyalty. Rossiter and Robinson describe the fourth step “as a process involving a child’s awareness to the commercial’s symbolic as well as realistic nature” (138). A commercial is the selling of an idea, a concept that exists in the real world- where it can be purchased, and the symbolic world- where it can be desired. To complete the five-step process, in dwelling over past personal experiences with the advertised product, a child should discover that the product didn’t always live up to its advertisement (Rossiter and Robinson 142) Steps four and five play out in this type of sequence: A child is starving while watching TV, an ad for a Wendys’ Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger prompts him/her to get mom to drive to Wendys, purchase, and eat the product. Before eating it the child recalls the advertised image of the burger and is disappointed that their meal looks much smaller and less desirable then on TV. This child was sold on the symbolic nature of the burger, and disappointed after its consumption. Recalling this experience the next time he/she is hungry and views a Wendys’ ad for a Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, he/she is less likely to purchase it because he/she isn’t sold on the symbolic nature of the product.
For Wartella, understanding the purpose of ads, a means by which a product is sold to a consumer, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a child can grasp the greater purpose and pervasive nature of advertising (174). To do this a child must have a firm understanding of the motivations behind those advertising products to them, these motivations being profit motive through the formation of lifelong brand loyalty. For this to occur, Roberts suggests children must develop the ability of role taking (1979). Once a child is able to put him/her self in the shoes of a marketer, he/she can fully realize the true motivation behind an ad. In a more recent study titled Children and commercials: Issues, evidence, interventions, Roberts argues that there are four components of commercials that must be identified if a child is to fully realize the motivations of marketers:
1. The source of commercials has other perspectives and interests than that of the receiver;
2. That the source intends to persuade;
3. By definition persuasive messages are biased;
4. That biased messages demand different interpretation strategies than do primary informational, educational, or entertainment messages (174).
This demonstrates for Roberts that even if a child is able to recognize that he/she is being advertised to at eight years of age: he/she needs to develop further mental processes before conceiving why they are being advertised to. He believes that these advanced stages of cognitive process occur between the ages of 10-11 years (174).
If children between the ages of one and nine years are unlikely to understand the motivation behind ads, while children one to five maintain no ability whatsoever to distinguish an ad from a regular program: it must be argued that children are vulnerable to deception through misleading food advertising, and are being taken advantage with profit as a motive. In support of this theory, “The heavy marketing of high fat, high sugar foods to this age group can be viewed as exploitative because young children do not understand that commercials are designed to sell products and they do not yet possess the cognitive ability to comprehend or evaluate the advertising”(Story and French). Several lawsuits have been filed on the grounds that deceiving food ads are a violation of a child’s rights under the Consumer Protection Act. The guidelines for general advertising policy maintains that ads must be truthful and non deceptive. According to the FTC’s Deception Policy Statement, an ad is deceptive if it contains a statement – or omits information – that: “is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and is ‘material’ – that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product.” With junk-food messages crushing healthy, core food messages, the disproportion misleads children to believe that the advertised diet, is the appropriate and or healthy diet. This violation gives merit to any lawsuit claiming a child’s credulity is violated by food advertising tactics, primarily television. To demonstrate how this thought process works, consider cigarettes which are responsible for the most preventable deaths in the US. Because of this cigarettes by law are required to have a surgeon general’s warning on them informing a consumer of the adverse affects of smoking. Now look at obesity, responsible for the second most preventable deaths in the US, yet no surgeon general’s warning attached to food advertisements that are high in fat, devoid of nutrients, and directed specifically for children that lack the cognitive development to either interpret those messages as ads, or conceive the branding motivation as a function of the ads. It is for this reason that the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gave notice in January of 2006 that they are to sue Kellogg Company and Viacom’s Nickelodeon for “encouraging tykes to eat food that is high in fat, salt, and almost devoid of nutrients”(Careful Children are Watching). The primary purpose of the suit is to keep companies from marketing “junk food” in places where 15% or more of the audience is comprised by children under the age of eight. Choosing eight years as the magic number further reinforces the cognitive theory that children cannot understand the motivation and function of an ad until that age. If ruled in favor of, this suit will lead to a ripple effect of similar cases filed against “Kellogg” and “Nickelodeon”.
There is large body of evidence suggesting that ad exposure has an effect influencing the preference of a particular product. In Atkin’s Effect of Television Advertising On Children: “Several surveys have found positive relationships between heavy exposure to commercials and acceptance of advertised claims about the products, belief in the advertisements, and verbal measures indicating a desire for the advertised products.” In 1984 Wartella determined, in a survey among grade-school boys, those who watched more TV were more likely to request advertised product on their Christmas list” (175). In 1982, Gorn and Goldberg conducted a naturalistic study (out of laboratory, free of criticisms that are attributed to controlled environment) over two weeks that determined: ads for fruit resulted in children drinking more orange juice, while ads for junk food resulted in the children drinking less orange juice (Livingstone 282).
In 1983 Kaufman and Sandman sampled a large American population and determined that children exposed to ads for sugared food are inclined to make fewer healthy food choices. When compared to children who had been exposed to healthy ads, there was a 10% increase in the ratio of healthy choice to unhealthy choice. Children exposed to healthy food ads chose 60% healthy, 40% unhealthy, compared to the 50-50 ratio for those exposed to sweets (Countering Children’s sugared food commercials: do rebuttals help?) These findings are important because they demonstrate that a child’s food choice can be persuaded either positively or negatively. If there were no results showing persuasion in food choice, then there would be no grounds for blaming the food advertising industry for this childhood obesity epidemic. In a later and more extensive survey Gorn and Goldberg determined, “children’s snack food choices at camp could be influenced by the types of television commercials the children watched” (Behavioral evidence of the effects of televised food messages on children 200-5). In this study, for 14 days they exposed 75 5-to-8 year olds to TV commercials of high or low sugar content during a 30-minute cartoon. There were four commercial experiment groups: candy and sweet foods commercials, fruit commercials, no commercials, and nutritional Public Service Announcements. Each day after viewing the 30 minute program, the children were to select a snack from a group of six choices, Kool-Aid, orange juice, two fruits and two candy bars. The results of this test determined, “children in the candy and sweet food commercial group picked far less (25%) fruit than those in other groups. Children in the fruit group chose the most orange juice (45%), while those in the candy group picked the least orange juice (25%). Lastly, the children in the no commercial group were just as likely as children in the PSA and fruit group to choose fruits for their snacks”(203) These results support that children exposed to sugary food ads are more like to choose unhealthy snacks than children exposed to healthy or no ads. Also, because there was no increase in healthy snacks between no commercial and a PSA, it implies a commercial is more effective than a PSA in persuading the food choice of a child; PSAs are used commonly by the government to promote healthy food.
Despite the Institute of Medicine’s finding of strong evidence that TV advertising influences food and beverage preferences and purchase request of children aged 2-11, they believe research is too limited to determine whether it is proof of persuaded food choice, or due to sedentary lifestyle and excessive snacking associated with TV viewing (The Impact of Food Advertising on Children’s Diets: A Review of the Evidence 2). It is difficult to determine whether increased eating is a result of TV advertising, or simply because watching TV is a bad habit- where children are inclined to eat more. The 2003 Hastings Review, which is commissioned by the United Kingdom (UK) Food Systems Agency, found a small but significant association between TV viewing and children’s food preferences (2). Despite these findings, they cited only one study where exposure to food ads caused an increase in snacking for children: Bolton’s 1983 Modeling the effect of television food advertising on children’s diets, in which snacking is increased by only 2%. In 2004, Ofcom, a UK communicator’s regulator, determined in a study that “the impact of TV advertising on food preference and choice was modest, but there is little evidence as to size of this effect, other than it is small”(Childhood Obesity- Food Advertising in Context)
Without overbearing evidence suggesting the degree to which children’s preference is persuaded by food ads, it is important to consider the other factors in a child’s life that influence food choice. Livingstone identifies four levels on which children’s food choice is affected: Individual, Interpersonal, Community, and Societal (290). On an individual level, she breaks it down to three categories; social psychological biological, and lifestyle. The social psychological approach looks at a child’s food preference, healthy and nutrition values, meanings of food and food knowledge. Many children are unaware of serious health risks; food education is hardly properly addressed through a grade school health class. The biology of an individual can greatly affect food choice. Cravings for fats and sweets come from central metabolic events, serotonin imbalance and altered leptin levels (Drewnowski 6) Hunger also plays a varying role from person to person; people that are growing fast are going to eat more and more inclined to be influenced in a food choice. People with addictive personalities are more likely to be persuaded by ads, while some individuals use food as a shelter of comfort in stressful times. The last factor affecting food choice on the individual level for Livingstone, is the lifestyle of a child. What time and convenience constraints does it have? Does a child live in the city where it can walk to McDonalds, or does he/she live in a suburb and have no mode of transportation? A child’s financial situation also influences its food choice. Teens are very price sensitive, and the cost of products influences ability to make a purchase.
Interpersonal is the next level of Livingstone’s model influencing food choice. This is broken down in two sections, family, and peers. Poverty plays a critical role in affecting a child’s food choice. Because healthy food costs more to produce, as seen in Drewnowski’s study of Poverty and Obesity, they cost more to purchase, making them out of reach for many families. Low income families are budget restrictive, some limited to $400 a week for 4 people, slightly less than 4 dollars per person, per day. Drewnowski claims, “healthy foods cannot be purchased on this on this budget, leaving only the option of eating food high in refined grains, added sugars, and added fats (5). Families with food budgets like the previous are a large reason for the marketing of the “dollar menu.” These families are likely to result to eating fast food; it is inexpensive and it fills you up due to a high energy density. Drewnowski also later determined that poor neighborhoods have a greater number of convenience stores and fast food restaurants per square mile than those of the middle and upper class. With a greater tendency to purchase from these types of establishments, and easier access, there is a significant decrease in meals eaten amongst the family (5). Family meals tend to be associated with healthier diets, if a child’s family has few meals together; they are more likely to eat unhealthy foods. A child’s peers are likely to influence their food choice, whether this appears through conformity due to common practice, or peer-pressure. If all of a child’s friends eat Oreos, they are likely to eat Oreos when spending time with them, as well as be pressured to eat Oreos in a friend’s presence. Furthermore this habit of eating with friends as a form of social interaction proves to create a positive association with eating and in particular a preference in food product.
Continuing to branch out from the individual child, we see that community is Livingstone’s third level affecting children’s food choice. Schools have a major impact on children’s food choice; children spend an increased time away from home in schools, where they eat one to two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. Schools have commercial contracts with various companies that provide branded vending machines at an easy convenience for students. Many of the competitive foods sold in cafeterias, school stores and fundraisers are typically high in calories and low in nutritional value. A child’s preference for food is influenced when the only option is an unhealthy one. Though fewer pre and grade schools have vending machines, it is common to see them sponsored by fast food restaurants. The Institute of Medicine’s in 2004 claimed that 38.2% of elementary schools have contracts with companies to sell soft drinks, 50.4% of middle-schools. 20.4% of elementary schools receive incentive based on sales from the company, and 40.9% of middle schools. 37.6 % of all schools allow these companies to advertise in school buildings, 27% on school grounds, and 2% on school buses (Effectiveness of school programs in preventing childhood obesity: a multilevel comparison). There is also a growing trend of fast food vendors in schools. About 20% of US high schools offer brand-name fast foods, such as Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, or Subway (Weshler 314). The results from the 2000 California High School Fast Food Survey conducted in 171 US school districts with 345 public high schools found that 24% of districts with a fast food or beverage contract gave exclusive advertising promotion rights to that company, including placement of the company’s name and logo on school equipment and facilities (Public education: Commercial activities in schools). With these numbers we see that it pays for schools to allow a child’s food preference be influenced by various brands.
Society is the last level of Livingstone’s model of factors affecting children’s food choice. It is in this level that we see the media come into play. She identifies a media-rich environment that can persuade a child’s food choice regardless of his or her environment (home, school, among peers). Because of consumerism, the youth market and its discretionary spending money are influenced by common trade to make purchases. Most children possess money with no responsibility to uphold with it (meaning no bills to pay, food to buy, etc), making it east to spend on one product or the next. Livingstone’s multi-level model of factors affecting children’s food choice is a step in the right direction of understanding why children are becoming excessively obese. It is necessary to understand all the factors influencing children’s food choice, therefore focusing on one such as the media, leaves great room for a continued misunderstanding of what is causing children to consume such an unhealthy diet, and ultimately become obese.
It is clear that unhealthy food choices are leading to an abundance of unhealthy children. Overweight and obese child have created a growing epidemic that is a major public health concern. Currently 15% of US youth are overweight, a prevalence nearly twice as high in children and three times as high in adolescents compared to the 1980 prevalence rates (Story and French). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention found only tobacco to cause more preventable deaths than obesity (400,000 annually), largely because 60% of overweight children are at risk to at least one cardiovascular factor (Torgan). Obese children now have diseases like type 2 diabetes that once only occurred in adults. It’s plain logic: overweight kids tend to become overweight adults, continuing to put them at greater risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke. There is also a large body of research attesting that overweight and obese conditions play an important role in cancer. NAASO, the Obesity Society found that obesity and overweight have been clearly associated with increased risks for kidney cancer in both men and women (two-fold increased relative risk), endometrial cancer in women (one and a half-fold relative risk) as well a postmenopausal breast cancer (two-fold relative risk). Building evidence maintains associations with an increased risk of colorectal and gall bladder cancer, and more modestly, the risk of thyroid cancer in women. Although these diseases occur later in life, the fact that they are associated with obesity make them an issue to unhealthy children at an early age. With children’s health being threatened by a number of conditions due to obesity, drastic change is a must (Cancer and Obesity).
This change will not come unless all of the factors that influence a child’s food choice and lifestyle are addressed. In the words of Dr. Thomas Robinson, a pediatrics researcher at Stanford, “We’re talking about something that’s nothing less than a revolution. It has to involve so many elements in our society . . . It’s really going to require a major sea change in how we look at this problem”(Atkin). The first step is realizing that there are many elements that affect a child’s food choice and lifestyle. Next, what is being done by these contributing elements to combat obesity, and more importantly what needs to be done to see some type of realistic progress?
With the over exposure of unhealthy ads being a primary target in this epidemic, the food advertising industry has responded by launching numerous healthy food and awareness campaigns. In January, Kraft announced their “Sensible Solution” label. This label was placed on alternative, healthier foods (Jardine and Wentz 45). This allows children to be directed towards a healthier diet in the place of their accustomed unhealthy choices. Kraft is also now only advertising on a handful of TV shows where children ages 6-11 are the primary audience (Jafe). McDonalds added “easy-to-read” nutritional labeling, while Subway went to the lengths of creating its “F.R.E.S.H. Steps” Program. This effort includes a pledge program for kids to adopt healthier lifestyles, and activity-based toys in Kids’ Pak meals (Macarthur 6). This is a great idea because children are influenced by toys all the time. Girls dress like Barbie and want to drive convertibles, boys play with GI Joes and want to be army men who shoot guns, now maybe they will want to go outside and ride a bike. Also in expansion of the chains’ relationship with the American Heart Association, for the first time it is sponsoring AHA’s Jump Rope for Heart program. Chris Carroll, VP-marketing for Subway’s Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust had this to say, “We have a firm belief that we hold a position within the consumers’ consciousness that we can actually change people’s awareness and people’s understanding of eating and exercise habits,”. He said this is the chain’s largest corporate-responsibility effort to date (Macarthur 7). These are good examples of the type of effort needed from the food advertising industry; however they are only the beginning. The idea behind Subway’s activity based toys should be taken a bit further; this type of toy marketing should be the only way to legally include toys with food. Every toy in every McDonalds Happy meal should be required to promote physical activity. Next up, if Nickelodeon makes an easy $200 million a year from the licensing of their characters, they should donate a minimum 2% of that profit to the NAASO. After all, Nickelodeon is a children’s TV network, they should support the unhealthy children they’re profiting from. I believe the CSPI have good claim in their lawsuit, seeking to regulate Kellogg and Viacom from marketing “junk foods” in places where 15% or more of the audience is children; however I think this is too extreme without further evidence linking food ads to food choice. The situation described by the CSPI, an audience comprised of 15% or more children, is the target audience for food companies, and would be a 1st amendment infringement. If food advertisers were prohibited to advertise to children, they would not be entitled to their free speech. They have the right for their messages to be heard, in restricting who hears them, it becomes an issue of censorship. Without overbearing evidence connecting food advertising with childhood obesity, there is no demand for such drastic measures. Another important fact weighing against the CSPI’s suit, despite fewer food spots obesity continues to increase amongst children (McConnel). Rather than being mandated to reduce the number of unhealthy ads targeted towards children, they should be required by the Children’s Advertisement Review Unit to match every unhealthy food ad with a healthy food ad. This proportion would give reason for food companies to reduce the number of unhealthy ads, without violating their rights to free speech. It would also go great lengths to promote healthy eating; we would no longer see the trend that the advertised diet is unhealthier than the recommended one. Also by equally advertising a healthy diet, children would have a comparison to the unhealthy diet, which makes them less likely to be deceived by ads- under the regulations of the consumer protection act. I believe with these steps the food industry is accepting their portion of the responsibility providing a strong basis for the “revolution” needed to curve this epidemic.
Standing between the media and children are those children’s parents. Every time a parent lets a child pester them into an unhealthy food choice, they are neglecting their role and responsibility in this fight against obesity. Despite the amount of unhealthy food ads a child is exposed to, it is the parent’s job to instill a basic understanding of nutrition in a child. A basic understanding of nutrition includes the adverse effects of bad nutrition. Sure children will still make unhealthy food choices despite knowing they are making an unhealthy choice, but the awareness of the fact will help a parent in positively influencing a child’s food choices. According to Livingstone in The Effects of Food Advertising to Children, “Parental behavior had a much greater effect on children’s food consumption than did television . . . in essence the finding was that marketing variables have a small effect and non marketing variables a much greater effect” (285). If food ads are misleading children’s understanding of nutrition, then parents aren’t doing a sufficient job responsibly raising their child. Parents should go out of their way to make eating healthy important to their kids, if they don’t, who are they to complain when food companies persuade their child’s food choice? Next to eating healthy, parents must reinforce the importance of daily exercise. The best way to cut down on a child’s exposure to food ads is by getting them outside, away from the TV. Encouraging your children to play a sport or join an activity club is an easy way to accomplish this. Exercise accomplishes two positive changes in the fight against obesity, it reduces food intake normally paired with TV, while also speeding up a child’s metabolism allowing him/her to burn off excess fat calories. Parents also teach bad habits by watching excessive TV. Be involved with your child’s activity and they are likely to make it a positive habit. Lastly, allowing family meals in front of the TV is sending the wrong message. Children have enough reasons to be drawn to the boob–tube; do not give them on more, especially one that pairs eating and TV.
The government needs to allocate more funds for programs such as its “5 A Day” campaign to promote healthy eating. Forcing food companies to balance unhealthy messages with healthy ones will help even out this lopsided advertising expenditure; but without taking further action the government is neglecting that it is under their guidelines that food companies are able to operate and make billion dollar profits. $9.55 million promoting fruits and vegetables is a joke when compared to the $11.26 billion spent by the food, candy, beverage and restaurant industry in 2004. Obviously, it would also be the government’s responsibility to ensure the food industry operates in accordance to the regulations previously stated. It is their job to regulate the food advertising industry as it exists only in accordance with national trade laws and regulations. Local governments should revise zoning laws to permit construction of more sidewalks, parks, bike paths, and playgrounds. Many children lack a proper place to safely exercise, this would solve that problem, while also promoting exercise in the community.
Lastly, local school districts need to take the health of the children in their community in their own hands. Profit should not be the goal for an educational facility. Rather than making money of the unhealthy eating habits of children, and furthermore promoting those unhealthy habits by allowing snack machines, and fast food restaurants infiltrate a school building, districts should design healthier meal plans. Fitness and health education classes need to be required. According to, Gym Classes Needed in Schools, a recent survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only a quarter of public schools in the US require students to take physical education classes–a drop from 42 percent in 1991. Although many schools have cut their gym and health classes to be replaced by more academic offerings, a survey released in September by the American Obesity Association found that 80 percent of parents were against this move (14). Similar to this cut of gym and health classes, it has become a growing trend for school officials to reject scheduled recess periods in favor of additional instruction time. According to one estimate, 40 percent of U.S. schools have eliminated recess or are considering the idea. In Atlanta recess has been abolished completely, they now build elementary schools without playgrounds (Schools Becoming All Work and No Play). Recess is the easiest way in the world to get children to exercise; taking it away tells them that exercise is not important. Schools must address their end of the issue in this fight to combat obesity among children. They must provide healthier food options, educate children with health and gym classes, and develop the habits of exercise through daily recess.
This epidemic will not be deterred unless full force of action is taken by all parties in a position to influence a child’s health. Despite an advertising expenditure of $100 billion, much of which is aimed at children with billions of dollars as profit motive, the over exposure of unhealthy food ads does not outweigh the other influencing factors in affecting a child’s food choice, and lifestyle. Although TV is the primary source by which food ads are received, several other factors in the life of a child advertise a message of health. Community is thus the most influencing factor in this fight to combat childhood obesity. Everyone is to blame if current trends continue; starting with the government change needs to be put in order, with their regulations food companies will support the children they profit from, with parental involvement we will see healthy child development, and lastly the institutions that are publicly funded to help our children learn, play, and grow, will do just that.
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