America's kids are fatter than ever. What's to
blame? Increasingly, researchers and regulators are
pointing a finger at the barrage of TV and Internet
ads pitching processed foods.
There's a little game Vivien Morris likes to play with
the overweight children who come to her hoping to shed
pounds and gain strength. She warbles the opening
stanza of an advertising jingle.
"And then I see if they can complete it," said Morris,
of Boston Medical Center . "If I say, 'You deserve a
break today,' they will say, 'McDonald's.' That's as
familiar to them as anything else in their lives."
It is testament to the high-stakes,
multibillion-dollar campaign to win the hearts, minds,
and bellies of America's children. There are ads on
TV, ads on the Internet, ads in video games. Ads for
breakfast cereals, ads for fast-food burgers, ads for
Now, there is mounting scientific evidence of
advertising's culpability in the nation's obesity
epidemic -- and intensifying pledges to do something
Federal regulators are demanding that the food
industry hand over marketing strategies aimed at
children. Food manufacturers and television channels
are vowing to promote healthier foods and lifestyles.
And researchers are monitoring the ad pitches of the
Trix bunny , Tony the Tiger , and other colorful
One study released a few weeks ago showed that the
typical 8- to 12-year-old is bombarded with 21 food
ads a day on television. That report, by the Kaiser
Family Foundation, reviewed more than 8,800 food
commercials and found not a single ad trumpeting fresh
fruits or vegetables to children.
A 2005 report commissioned by Congress concluded that
"the prevailing patterns of food and beverage
marketing to children in America represents, at best,
a missed opportunity, and, at worst, a direct threat
to the health of the next generation." The more TV ads
kids see, the more likely they are to be fat,
according to the Institute of Medicine report, which
reviewed more than 100 studies examing advertising's
link to obesity.
The proliferation of all kinds of advertising targeted
at children -- it's estimated to exceed $10 billion a
year -- happened at the same time that the collective
waistline of the nation's youngsters was ballooning.
In three decades, the percentage of overweight
children tripled, and with that came medical
conditions and warning signs previously unseen in
children, including high cholesterol and a form of
diabetes historically seen only in adults.
And what unfolds during childhood can have direct
bearing on adulthood: Habits and weight acquired early
in life can linger for a lifetime.
But the controversy swirling around food advertising
gets complicated when you get down to individual
foods. What counts more -- calories or sugar content?
A bowl of kids' cereal may be sprayed with vitamins
and register fairly low in calorie count -- but what
about the sugar and carbohydrates?
Think of Frosted Flakes . "There are those who may say
that's great food that should be seen as fuel for
activity," said Vicky Rideout , who presided over the
Kaiser Family Foundation study. "And then there are
others who will say you shouldn't be telling kids that
sugared foods will give them fuel for activity."
From the industry's point of view, "What else could
kids eat for breakfast that would be better?" General
Mills Co. spokesman Tom Forsythe said. "Sure, a kid
might eat a piece of fruit for breakfast. But if they
eat two pieces of fruit, they might get more
Turn on the TV on a Saturday morning and children get
a steady diet of commercials for McDonald's, Eggo
waffles (with the syrup baked in), and rapping
SpaghettiOs that promise "your mouth will really
"There's no strong message there to choose grapes or
bananas," said J. Michael McGinnis , who directed the
institute's congressionally mandated study.
The Kaiser report released in March quantified just
how many food ads kids were viewing in 2005. Children
ages 8 to 12, known as "tweens," saw the most food
ads, an average of 7,600 a year. And 34 percent of the
ads targeted at kids peddled candy and snacks, while
28 percent promoted cereal.
"Children need to learn about healthful foods from
their parents, but if the parents don't assume that
responsibility, the food industry is happy to fill the
vacuum," said Dr. David Ludwig , an obesity specialist
at Children's Hospital Boston . "The lessons learned
are not from people who love and care about the child,
but from others whose interest is profit."
The Federal Trade Commission has a different interest:
protecting consumers. That is why the US agency wants
to compel food and beverage makers, as well as
fast-food restaurants, to submit details of marketing
activities to children, including how much they spend.
"We put out a general request saying we would like
this kind of information," commission spokeswoman
Jackie Dizdul said. "The responses that we got weren't
enough data for us to accurately complete the survey."
So now, the agency wants to make the earlier request
from last year a formal mandate, pending approval by
the federal Office of Management and Budget.
In November, 10 leading makers of food products
consumed by children formed the Children's Food and
Beverage Advertising Initiative . The companies --
including such giants as General Mills, Kellogg Co. ,
and Coca-Cola Co. -- are promising that by this summer
at least half of their advertising to children will be
devoted to promoting healthier diet and lifestyle
"We're willing to be held accountable," Forsythe, of
General Mills, said last week.
C. Lee Peeler , executive vice president for
advertising self-regulation at the Council of Better
Business Bureaus , said that his organization will
review the pledges and then regularly audit whether
the big food companies are keeping their word. The
specifics of what the companies consider healthier
diets are still being drafted, he said.
Food and advertising industry representatives
acknowledge the external forces buffeting them. Dan
Jaffe , executive vice president of the Association of
National Advertisers , writes a blog called
"Regulatory Rumblings." Still, the industry insists
it's not the hand of government but the reach of
consumers that is most forcefully driving change.
"The marketplace is the number one factor because
companies are making money selling healthy products,"
While the Kaiser study could find scant evidence in
2005 of public-service ads promoting healthy eating,
the popular children's network Nickelodeon said it is
expanding efforts to encourage youngsters to eat well
and stay fit. A spokeswoman said that the channel
devotes 10 percent of its airtime in between programs
to health messages and that in the past two years it
awarded $2.5 million in wellness grants to schools and
But that progress has yet to reach Tamika Morgan's
family. Her son Izaiah Busby-Morgan , 10, participates
in the weight-loss program at Boston Medical. His
pleas still ring loud for products promoted on TV.
"Most of the stuff is either sugary cereals or the
sweet type of yogurts," said Morgan, who lives in
Dorchester. "If they're going to promote food that
much, they ought to promote something healthier and at
least let them know they should exercise as well."