Obesity Blame Game Targets Advertising

The Alliance for American Advertising plans to change public perception that advertising makes children obese.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

Not seeing the forest for the trees is not unusual for our legislators, educators, consumer protection groups and federal agencies. They thrive playing the blame game and assume they know all the answers. Their latest salvo concerns obesity in children and its causes.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing last year, Victoria Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, private health care foundation, testified that children see about 40,000 TV ads a year, most for food. She added that media targeted to children "is laden with elaborate  ERROR: "ad" shortcode requires a "code" argument.  campaigns, many of which promote foods such as candy, soda and snacks." Her conclusion: Children are obese because of the food ads they watch on TV. She didn't mention some children are allowed to watch as much as five hours of TV a day. These mini-couch potatoes could be besieged with ads for carrots and still gain weight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the proportion of overweight children aged 6-11 has more than doubled since 1980; the rate for adolescents has tripled; 10 percent of 2-5 year olds and 15 percent of 6-19-year-olds are overweight. Among children of color, the rates are even higher: four in 10 Mexican American and African American youth aged 6-19 are considered overweight or at risk.

Why? The American Psychological Assn. blames food ads and calls for legislation to restrict ads targeting children younger than 8 years old, since many ad and marketing campaigns enlist children's TV and movie characters: from SpongeBob Cheez-Its to Scooby-Doo cereals. Meanwhile, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group, is investigating possible lawsuits against the food industry. It believes only "good" food should be advertised to children and that it, along with the Dept. of Health and Human Services, should determine what constitutes a "good" food.

Attacking food companies and food ads isn't a new idea, but it comes at a time when the industry is feverishly working to limit trans fats and sugar, reduce portion sizes, promote healthier products and launch informative web sites.

In response to recent criticism of ad practices, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Kellogg combined forces in January with three advertising lobby groups - the American Advertising Federation (AAF), American Assn. of Advertising Agencies and Assn. of National Advertisers -- along with the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA) to form the Alliance for American Advertising (AAA). Its purpose, according to AAF President/CEO Wally Snyder, is to fight efforts to limit the marketing of food to children, defend the industry's First Amendment rights to advertise to children and promote its willingness to police itself.

Advertising will always have its critics. "Some think adults should see less of it and that children should not see it at all," says Richard Martin, GMA's vice president of communications. "Over the past two years, 97 percent of respondents to our initiatives survey said they have introduced or improved the nutrition profile of their products. More than half are making changes to their package sizes to help consumers manage their caloric intake. More than 90 percent promote healthy lifestyles. And more than 70 percent have specific policies in place governing marketing to children."

With a six-figure budget, the AAA plans to approach at least 20 more companies and associations to change public perception that advertising makes children obese, reports Brandweek. With PepsiCo now also on board, the alliance would like to recruit Coca-Cola, McDonald's, the National Assn. of Broadcasters and the Magazine Publishers.

First on the agenda for AAA is to lobby lawmakers against introducing legislation aimed at restricting food ads aimed at kids. Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts have rallied for such legislation. It's notable that Quebec and Sweden have banned all advertising to children and still have high obesity rates.

A public relations offensive also is planned to point out that advertising is not the problem and that the industry already has a strong self-regulatory arm in the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which polices ads targeted at kids. "They have a 95 percent success rate in getting companies to agree to make changes in their ads," says Snyder. If CARU is unable to get a company to comply with its guidelines, the matter is sent to the Federal Trade Commission.

"We think advertising is important to tell consumers - adults and kids alike - about new foods that taste good and how they fit into a healthy lifestyle," says Martin. "We do not think we need to hide our children from the world around them. We just need to be sensitive when we talk to them. And of course, GMA members will be truthful and responsible whenever they communicate with consumers."

Martin adds, "As we intensify our efforts to communicate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, we cannot lose sight of a very simple but essential truth - taste matters. Consumers will not purchase foods they do not enjoy. The challenge for America's food and beverage manufacturers is to provide and promote the products that make eating not only healthy, but also enjoyable. And consumers - parents and kids alike - will see even more of these products in the months and years ahead."

And that's the bottom line. Consumers make food choices for their children, not advertising agencies.

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