Don’t Play the Blame Game
By Brady Darvin
Efforts to further regulate advertising candy and snacks to kids pose a threat to U.S. marketers.
It affects one-third of American kids. It is responsible for skyrocketing statistics on the number of new cases of childhood diabetes and heart disease. It is going to be the primary contributor to bringing the U.S. healthcare system to the brink of bankruptcy.
“It,” of course, is the current obesity epidemic. If you read or listen to the news headlines like the average American, you might believe that the primary cause of this epidemic is marketing. This definition of marketing includes television advertising for fast food and sugary cereals, Web site games that encourage kids to scarf down cookies and candy, and grocery aisles lined with packages sporting popular cartoon characters.
If you listen to “authorities” such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) or the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, you would believe that today’s kids are so inundated with messages encouraging them to eat junk food that they have no hope of making healthier choices. You would believe that the number of such messages today’s kids see is higher than it’s ever been and has been growing every year. And, if you’re a parent of an overweight child, you might even believe that legislation is needed to prevent marketers from “bombarding” your kids with unhealthy messages, and that other countries that have such laws don’t have obesity problems.
Of course, if you believe all of the above, you are probably not reading Confectioner. But if you’re in the business of selling candy or snacks, and if kids are directly or indirectly responsible for some part of your sales, you surely have some customers who do believe all of the preceding, and it’s important that as a retailer you know the facts.
Just the facts
The marketing and advertising of “junk food” is not the cause of the recent rise in childhood obesity. That is not to say, however, that television advertising does not influence children’s food and beverage purchase requests and their short-term food consumption patterns. Advertising and promotions work, and that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
But the more relevant issue when discussing the increase in childhood obesity is whether the average child between the ages of 6 and 11 has been exposed to more ads for unhealthy foods than children of 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
Not so, according to the most recent analysis on this subject, published in June 2007 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. That analysis incorporated a review of the 10 largest studies of kid-targeted food ad exposure over the past 30 years. It concluded that “the dramatic increase in childhood obesity rates during the past few decades was not mirrored by similar changes in food advertising exposure,” and that “comparisons with previous studies suggest that, over time, food ads account for a smaller share of the product ads seen by children.”
Dissecting the research
Another study published this past June, this one by the Kaiser Family Foundation, surveyed 1,000 parents about their feelings on how television viewing affected their kids. While two-thirds of parents agreed that kids who watch a lot of television are more likely to be overweight, only one-third said they were “very” concerned that their children are exposed to too many television ads, with another 35 percent saying they were “somewhat” concerned. But of those parents who are concerned, only 10 percent cited food advertisements as their biggest concern. (Toys, video games, clothing and alcohol were all of greater concern to these parents.)
In addition, the study found that the vast majority of parents have a lot more influence over their kids than the media does, and only 14 percent of parents listed the media as one of the top two influences in their children’s lives. Kids’ No. 1 influence, according to parents: Mom and Dad.
A 2005 study by leading youth researcher Yankelovich found similar sentiments when it asked more than 1,200 parents to assign responsibility for solving kids’ health issues. The parents attributed only 10 percent of the responsibility to food manufacturers and marketers, but 49 percent to themselves.
Despite the research demonstrating that most parents are not blaming advertisers for childhood obesity, legislation that mandates an outright ban on advertising certain foods to kids is a very real threat for American marketers. The U.K.’s Ofcom (an agency similar to the Federal Communications Commission in the United States) earlier this year announced a ban on television ads for foods high in fat, salt or sugar during programs watched primarily by children. In France, regulators decreed in March 2007 that advertisements for any processed food targeting kids must devote 7 percent of space to health messages about a balanced lifestyle and healthy eating.
Marketers in both France and the United Kingdom are currently fighting these bans, which threaten the rights of marketers in a free economy. If you are reading this magazine, you should be equally concerned because some U.S. legislators, led by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., are considering similar legislation for our country.
In Norway and Sweden, statutory bans on all ads targeted at kids have been in place for more than a decade. Despite this, the childhood obesity rates in those countries are right in line with the United States.
Those groups like the CSPI that advocate banning advertising for foods deemed “unhealthy” also seem to ignore the reality that it’s simply not possible to limit kids’ exposure to ads for foods and beverages without banning all food and beverage advertising to everyone. A large share of television programming and many other types of media seen by kids are actually targeted to adults. (The majority of the 10 most popular programs among kids ages 6 to 11 air during prime time, not on Saturday mornings or during the afternoons.)
To advocate that today’s kids must be shielded from all media advertising foods that may be unhealthy is to advocate the elimination of all marketing and advertising for foods and beverages — period. While some extremists might actually like to see that happen, retailers can take comfort in the fact that such a scenario is not a feasible or realistic possibility in our free economy. However, it is almost certain that marketers and retailers in the United States will be more restricted in their future advertising practices when it comes to kids.
Sens. Brownback and Harkin announced this summer that they would postpone a report from a task force they formed with the FCC in view of industry plans to announce concessions, but they are still likely to push for more strict legislation in the near future.
Less than two weeks later, just before a scheduled Federal Trade Commission hearing to discuss the topic, 11 of the nation’s largest food and beverage marketers announced plans to introduce self-imposed limits on advertising targeted to children ages 12 and under. Seven of the companies pledged to avoid the use of licensed characters in print and online, unless they are promoting products that meet certain nutritional guidelines, although they may still use such characters on product packaging without violating those pledges.
Shortly following that announcement by food makers, in just one week last month, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Discovery Kids — three of the largest licensors of kids’ characters and brands — each separately announced similar pledges to end all agreements allowing their characters and brands to be used in conjunction with any foods or beverages that do not meet minimal nutritional guidelines. Each pledge uses slightly different nutritional criteria, and each exempts “special occasion” products, such as Halloween candy.
While all three companies have received kudos from government officials and advocacy groups for the pledge, those groups have made it clear they want to see further restrictions. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., released a statement the same day that Nickelodeon announced its pledge, saying, “... I look forward to working with Nickelodeon, as well as with other industry participants, on additional initiatives they can make in the coming weeks and months to further address childhood obesity issues.” It seems clear that such extreme critics will not be happy until marketers’ rights are legislated away completely.
A call to action
The National Confectioners Association earlier this year published guidelines for responsible marketing to children. The guidelines encourage marketers to advertise their products appropriately and to present balanced messages that feature reasonable portion sizes and encourage healthy lifestyles. (www.candyusa.org)
Now more than ever, it’s critically important to embrace these guidelines. At the same, time, however, as marketers, retailers and manufacturers of candy and snack foods, we need to pull together, to refuse to silently accept the blame that some would lay upon us, and to disseminate information about the true causes of the obesity epidemic. We need to be active in the fight against legislation that would restrict the advertising and promotion of our products.
Contact the NCA and ask how you can help with this cause; educate yourself about childhood obesity, portion control, and how to encourage healthy habits in your customers. Follow the same advice being given to today’s kids: Don’t just sit around: Get active. n
Brady Darvin is senior director of consumer insights at Strottman International Inc., a full-service agency specializing in the kids and family market that creates and manufacturers in-pack premiums, toys, plush, and other products for a variety of confections, packaged goods, foodservice and retail clients. You can reach him at 949.623.7929 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
Moms Share Their Views on Advertising to Kids
Here’s what moms interviewed by Strottman International had to say about candy and snack advertising seen by their children.
Who or what is responsible for the increase in childhood obesity?
“It’s the parents,” says Teri, a 39-year-old mother of three children, ages 4, 7 and 10. “It’s video games. It’s that our world is not as safe as it used to be because we cannot let our kids play outside alone. [Parents] have a choice — they can either give a food to their kids or not...and our portions have just gotten out of control.”
Jane, a mom who has three children under age 9, agrees. “It’s the parents,” she says. “The parents decide what they eat and what they do with their day...It’s the parents that are purchasing [foods], the parents that decide what their kids eat.”
Do you support legislation to ban candy and snack advertising?
“I would rather have a law to teach parents about nutrition,” says Alice, a 40-year old mother of four children under age 7.
“It’s not realistic to [ban ads for food targeted to kids], because tomorrow my kids are going to go to a birthday party and there are going to be Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and other stuff there,” says Belinda, 36, a mother of two.
“I think [advertising is] fine, and that everything is OK in moderation,” says Teri. “And if kids are going to buy a candy because it has their favorite character on it and it tastes good, then that’s great if it makes them happy.”
Real Causes of Obesity
So if marketing is not to blame for the recent rise in obesity, what is? Few would argue that one major cause is a decline in physical activity among kids. Public schools continue to devote fewer and fewer resources to physical education for reasons that range from a lack of funding for team sports at the high school level to a reduction in recess time because of increased standardized academic testing requirements at the elementary level.
The vast increase in time spent playing video games is certainly part of the cause of the overall decline in physical activity, but it is certainly not the cause of an obesity epidemic, and again, it’s not fair to blame marketers for this. Just as parents of the 1950s were faced with regulating how much time their kids spent reading comic books, it is the responsibility of today’s parents to regulate how much time their kids spend playing video games.
Some game marketers have even provided an active alternative to sedentary video games. Konami’s “Dance Dance Revolution,” which has sold more than seven million copies since 2001, is just one example.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control’s widely-commended “VERB” campaign ran for more than five years, and studies showed that it was effective in increasing the level of physical activity among those kids exposed to its messages. So why did Congress refuse to renew federal funding for VERB last year?
The answer to that question — and to the question of why fingers get pointed at marketers so frequently — is perhaps most eloquently summarized in a quote from William MacLeod, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Consumer Protection. “Changing society is a daunting task,” MacLeod says. “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.”