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Food industry marketing still exploits kids, notes US News & World Report

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October 27th, 2008

By Guest Blogger Mara Einstein

U.S News & World Report came out with an article alerting us yet again to the dangers of food industry marketing. Called “10 Things the Food Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know,” the piece outlines some of the inside workings of the food industry, practices that are bad for your health and more importantly, the health of your children.

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Some items on the list are obvious and, I think, fairly well known. Less processed food is better than processed food, junk food companies spend millions of dollars promoting their foods to unsuspecting tots, and so on. Also, similar to drug companies being in bed with the FDA, food and beverage manufacturers support the American Dietetic Association.

None of this is earth shattering. What did get my attention, however, is the fact that two years after food manufacturers and media companies agreed to make curbing childhood obesity a priority it appears little has been done.

Three years ago childhood obesity hit the news in full force. It was noted that for the first time in American history children would have shorter life spans than their parents. Everyone was up in arms about the statistics that noted that 30% of children were considered overweight or obese. The two industries most roundly condemn for contributing to this disease were food manufacturers and the media.

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To better understand the relationship between obesity and media, the Kaiser Family Foundation did an extensive review of the research on media’s role in contributed to children being overweight. Two of their key findings were that there was a relationship between heavy television usage and obesity, and the amount of advertising that children are exposed to has doubled in the past 20 years from 20,000 to 40,000 commercials per year.

The bottom line is that the more kids watch TV, the more overweight they tend to be, and the more likely they are to request unhealthy foods because they have been exposed to so many commercials selling these products. This explains why the advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods has increasingly become the focus of media and obesity research.

In a 2005 report entitled “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity” by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) researchers noted that “…America’s children and youth…have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods, and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to them.” The vast majority of that marketing comes via television commercials. We know that kids watch on average three hours of TV per day. Within any given hour of TV there are approximately fifteen minutes of non-program time, i.e., commercials. Therefore, for every five hours of television watched, kids see one hour of commercials. The top two product categories that target kids with their advertising are toys and food. It’s not hard to figure out that kids are seeing an inordinate amount of food advertising.

Some marketers have made significant strides in this area. Nickelodeon,for example, no longer allows its characters to appear on unhealthy foods. That’s why you see SpongeBob on carrots and Dora the Explorer on peaches. Disney is slowly moving in that direction but they have contracts tied to non-nutritious food which will expire at the end of this year. (It’ll be interesting to see what Disney does after this period.)

Other marketers, however, have not. There is the marketing to parents, such as Pepsi’s website Smart Spot which, as noted in the article, is deceptive and misleading. The site suggests to parents that snacks like granola bars and baked chips are healthy for kids. But while they may be better than some alternative sweet and fatty snacks they do not rise to the level of nutritious — slapping a “smart choice” branding label on a product does not make it so.

Even more insidious are websites designed for children. Called advertainment, websites like Millsberry are created so kids will spend time a lot of time online interacting in a virtual space while unaware that they are on the site of the General Mills company.

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In an age where information is so readily available, this article reminds us to be sure we know where the information is coming from and to remember that if someone is trying to make a profit from you, they are unlikely to be the best source of information.

And, of course, remember what your mother said, “Eat your fruits and vegetables.”

Guest Blogger Mara Einstein, an associate professor of media studies at Queens College, has been working in or writing about the media for the past 20 years. Her most recent book is Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (Routledge, 2008). This piece is cross-posted at brandsoffaith.com

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