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Does Advertising Make Us Fat? Yes!

Gary Ruskin, Brandweek

February 20, 2006

TALK ABOUT denial. After the Institute of Medicine issued a December report on food marketing and childhood obesity, the food and advertising industries sounded the alarm. "It's the height of chutzpah," declared the pro-business Center for Consumer Freedom,

"to call for sweeping federal regulations on marketing without having evidence to prove that advertisements cause childhood obesity."

Nice try. Problem is, the IOM study was merely confirming the obvious: that current food and beverage marketing practices put kids' long-term health at risk.

While Big Food and its advertising partners should be chastened, instead we get endless denials. Wally Snyder of the American Advertising Federation, is typical: "Advertising is not the culprit" for the rise in childhood obesity, he says.

Such misguided thinking is going to catch up with you.

In Europe, it already has. Markos Kyprianou, the European Health Commissioner, said last year that he "would like to see the [food] industry not advertising directly to children any more." He gave the industry a year to self-regulate, or he will push for legislation.

As the tobacco industry showed, it is possible to rope-a-dope the science for a very long time. But increasing numbers of Americans are on to the game.

Food giants wouldn't spend $11 billion a year on ads if they didn't get a payback. People see the commercials, and don't need a guy in a lab coat to tell them what piles of fatburgers and mega-gulps do to young bodies. But the more the industry stonewalls, the more it confirms parents' suspicions that it cannot be trusted, and that new laws are necessary.

Parents resent commercial interloping that involves their kids. It's outrageous that corporations pay for psychologists and hucksters to turn children into nags. If you want to sell something to kids, do so via ads aimed at parents—and let them decide whether a product is safe to buy.

Scores of top health scholars and medical groups have endorsed Commercial Alert's call for a ban on junk food marketing to children 12 years of age and younger as "perhaps the single most inexpensive and cost-efficient way to reduce the global burden of obesity, diabetes and their complications among children."

Let's look at soda pop. A study in the medical journal Lancet found that for each can of sugar-sweetened soda a child drinks daily, they are 1.6 times more likely to become obese. Another study in the British Medical Journal among children

7-11 years old found that those who were taught to drink less soda in school were 7% less likely to become obese than children who lacked such lessons.

Researchers writing in the International Journal of Obesity found that girls and boys who ate fast food three times or more a week had far higher calorie intakes: 37% and 40%, respectively, compared to those who didn't eat any fast food. Another study in the journal Pediatrics found that on any given day, children who ate fast food took in 187 extra calories than kids who abstained from such meals.

When ads boost demand for soda pop and fast food, should we really be surprised that childhood obesity is a result? No one claims that marketing is the sole culprit. Obviously, obesity is a complex problem with many causes. Everyone agrees that children need more exercise. But it's hard not to laugh when marketers boast that ads work—except for products like tobacco, alcohol and junk food.

Your denials are helping to generate a broad-based movement to restrict advertising to children, and ads in general. That movement is gaining strength, and you are pouring bacon fat on the fire.

Big Food isn't yet as unpopular as Big Tobacco. But since you're using the same playbook, don't be surprised if you end up where they did.

The federal government won't always be a wholly owned subsidiary of Corporate America and its army of influence-peddlers. Pent-up frustration arising from the marketing of tobacco, pharmaceuticals, junk food, alcohol—and to children in general—may well bring legislation or court decisions that put childrens' health ahead of profits and commercial speech.

It's time to concede the obvious: childhood obesity is a marketing-related disease, so stop marketing to children. Americans will respect you if you accept responsibility, and the consequences, for years of wrongdoing. Ignore this warning and you'll end up battling Congress and state legislatures, courts, school boards and town halls—a pariah, stripped of its privileges, and hamstrung in ways you may not yet be able to imagine.

Which road will you choose?


Does Advertising Makes Us Fat? No!

By William MacLeod

February 20, 2006

IT HAS BEEN nearly five years since the Surgeon General announced his call to action to end obesity. Finding 61% of adults and 13% of children overweight in 2001, the nation's top doctor declared our bulk an epidemic that was already taking a toll on our health.

His prescription was to change nearly every aspect of our daily lives. He declared 15 priorities—public and private initiatives such as more physical and nutritional education in schools, more fitness facilities at work, more time for play, less time for TV, more healthy food choices, and more research on causes of obesity.

The Surgeon General's priorities were multifaceted and detailed. But simplicity sells, and there is no shortage of advocates to pitch it.

In 2003, the Center for Science in the Public Interest announced that food marketing was making children pester their parents and choose unhealthy foods. The consumer activist group urged a ban on advertising to kids any food that didn't meet certain nutritional standards.

In 2004, a task force of the American Psychological Association concluded that children below the age of seven or eight cannot fully appreciate the persuasive power of advertising and called for an end to it.

Then the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that the media contributes to obesity because of the food commercials children see, rather than the hours they spend sitting in front of TV screens.

Changing society is a daunting task. It requires everyone to get involved—children, parents, teachers, employers, marketers, communities and governments.

By contrast, blaming advertisers is easy. It attracts attention, it suggests a simple solution and in the public policy debate, it yields the floor to a new group of advocates. Blaming advertisers is the stock-in-trade of plaintiffs' lawyers, and they have become increasingly willing to see if that stock will sell in court.

At first the lawsuits seemed little more than fodder for the late-night comedians. A pair of teenagers blamed advertising by McDonald's for the extra food they ate and weight they gained. Despite getting thrown out of court twice, the case is still alive.

More recently, the legal maneuvers seem to be getting serious. The lawyers that led attacks on cigarette advertising are holding seminars on suing food companies.

Now CSPI has announced that it intends to take Kellogg and Viacom to court for using SpongeBob SquarePants to advertise foods that CSPI says kids eat too often. The group wants to stop that advertising, and to pay a couple of billion dollars to kids who saw the commercials.

To all but a handful of graying veterans of marketing, the arrival of trial lawyers to this issue is new and menacing. In fact, it's not new. Almost 30 years ago, CSPI petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to ban the advertising of cereals and sweets on kids' TV. The reason? Sugar in the products was giving kids too many calories and too many cavities. To dramatize its case, the groups deposited a bag of decayed teeth at the FTC.

The petitioners were not alone. The American Dental Association urged the agency to silence advertisers altogether. And child psychologists favored the ban.

It took the FTC three years to figure out that the seemingly simple solution of an advertising ban was not so simple.

The evidence which showed that advertising caused kids to get cavities never appeared. The agency did discover that it would be impossible to restrict the advertising that kids see without restricting the advertising that everybody sees.

Most of the commercials kids saw appeared not on children's TV, but on general programming. Unable to blame advertising, the FTC declared the problem of cavities beyond its powers to solve, and closed the book.

Today, kids watch less TV than they did in the 1970s. Yet they are more likely to be overweight. So are their parents—far more so—but nobody is suggesting that commercials directed to kids are making their parents fat. If anything, the allegations are weaker today than they were back then.

Does this mean that marketers should dust off that '70s playbook and count on another capitulation from the regulators? No. And that is why this new challenge is more menacing than the last.

The mood in the country is different. In 1978, media and Congress ridiculed the FTC as a National Nanny. Today, we hear politicians saying that if marketers don't do something about obesity, government should do something about marketing.

And the tactics of the advocates are different. They are not asking a federal agency to draft new advertising rules. They are targeting marketers one by one, threatening litigation, ugly publicity, massive fines and crippling injunctions. The prospect of this ordeal will be too much for some marketers to bear.

But if marketers have the stamina, they can expect the same reaction from the courts that they received from the FTC long ago. A comprehensive review of the evidence is just in, from an Institute of Medicine committee that studied marketing and obesity. The experts' conclusion was surprisingly consistent with the FTC's old assessment: the evidence does not support the proposition that advertising causes obesity.

Granted, the IOM found, advertising to kids does engage them, it does prompt them to request products, and it does get them to try those products. None of this should come as a surprise. That is what advertising is supposed to do. But that alone does not prove that advertising is unfair, even for youngsters who have not developed the skepticism that comes with age.

Two distinctly different attitudes have emerged about advertising's role in society. The first view, which the activists share, is that suppressing advertising can protect us from harmful behavior. Serious support for this idea has diminished over time. Even the head of CSPI has acknowledged that we should not expect an immediate victory over obesity if the group's suit were successful.

The second view, which the FTC has adopted, is that advertising can be a positive force to encourage and enlighten us to improve our behavior. Advertising—responsible advertising, of course—should be part of that communication.


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