Fighting obesity, but fronting for junk food

By Barbara F. Meltz

Boston Globe Staff

 May 21, 2007

Wanting to avoid the appearance of a government agency seeming to endorse a Hollywood movie, the US Department of Health and Human Services has temporarily halted its public service ad campaign in which the animated movie character Shrek urges children to exercise. "Shrek the Third," released by DreamWorks, opened Friday.

But, says HHS spokesman Bill Hall , "We'll pop them right back up there as soon as the hype for the movie dies down, in six weeks or so."

Who knew that conflicts of interest come with expiration dates?

If that's not bizarre enough, there's also this: HHS sees no problem using Shrek as a frontman in the fight against childhood obesity at the very same time Shrek's image is also licensed for use on more than 75 fast-food products including M&Ms, Pop-Tarts , and McDonald's Happy Meals.

"I'd call that naive, disingenuous, or hypocritical -- take your pick," says psychologist Susan Linn , co founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood , based at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.

Last month CCFC called for HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt to "fire" Shrek, saying there is an inherent conflict of interest for a government agency that is mandated to protect the health and well-being of children to tie itself to a character that is also tied to energy-dense, low-nutrient foods. Hall's counter is that the public service ads are not about diet.

"Shrek is conveying the message that, 'Hey, I'm overweight, I'm out of shape, and I eat a lot of snacks. I'm adding physical activity to my lifestyle so I can be healthier. You should, too, ' " Hall says. "If we were to pull the Shrek campaign completely, what kids would be left with is Shrek promoting only food products. That would be a very-one sided message."

That thinking dumbfounds people such as child psychologist David Walsh . As it is, he says, children are only getting one message.

"When two messages undercut each other as these do, the one that is more prominent is the one that gets through," says Walsh, president of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. Not everyone blames HHS for wanting to stick with Shrek.

"He's a character kids are powerfully drawn to," says Kathy Merlock Jackson , a children's media and culture specialist at Virginia Wesleyan College . "They identify with him. He's kind, caring, funny, and he's not perfect. They like that. They admire that. Just think how wonderful it would be if all of Shrek's appeal were focused on one message: promoting children's exercise."

Jackson says the responsibility lies with DreamWorks. "I call on them to withdraw the licensing for the [fast-food] venues and do the right thing for kids: Let Shrek be a spokesperson only for exercise."

Not a bad idea, says Walsh, especially considering that the Centers for Disease Control has labeled childhood obesity a public health emergency.

In a telephone interview Saturday, DreamWorks spokesperson Bob Feldman defended the choice of Shrek for both HHS and food products, noting that DreamWorks paid attention to the products Shrek appeared on.

"We made a conscious, thought-out effort to [license] the healthier choices of the fast food that is out there. Since when did candy become evil? People know candy is a treat , and parents know to dole it out carefully."

What's more, he noted, DreamWorks initiated the collaboration with HHS and the Ad Council.

"We want to be socially responsible. We support balanced diet and regular exercise," Feldman said. "DreamWorks Animation is committed to responsible marketing and we are proud of our relationship with HHS, McDonald's, and other companies."