Ad ininitum
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.

 

By Stephen Smith

Boston Globe

April 23, 2007

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 candy treats.

Now, there is mounting scientific evidence of advertising's culpability in the nation's obesity epidemic -- and intensifying pledges to do something about it.

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 characters.

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 calories."

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 groove."

"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 choices.

"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," Jaffe said.

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 communities.

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."