In April 2007, 15 food companies, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo, announced that beginning in 2008, they will devote at least half of their ads directed to children under 12 toward promoting “healthy dietary choices” and/or physical activity. Does this new pledge represent a change in direction or is it simply an effort to avoid stronger public oversight?
At least some companies worry about the growing public focus on obesity. In a recent talk at the Venice Festival of Media, Coca-Cola Company Chief Creative Officer, Esther Lee admitted, “Our achilles heel is the discussion about obesity. It’s gone from a small, manageable U.S. issue to a huge global issue. It dilutes our marketing and works against it. It’s a huge, huge issue.”
A recent study of television advertising for children conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that for children under the age of eight , only one ad out of 26 promotes fitness or a healthy diet and for children 8 to 12, it’s even worse, one ad out of 48. Furthermore, the food and beverage ads directed towards children overwhelmingly promote high fat and sugary snacks or fast food. The study looked at 8,854 commercials aimed at children, none of which promoted fruits or vegetables.
Do these ads affect eating behavior? A recent study at the University of Liverpool found that children who had been exposed to food advertisements on television were more likely to overeat than children who had not been so exposed. In the study, 59 nine to eleven year old children of varying weights were exposed to 10 food or 10 toy ads. The children were then allowed to eat a range of snacks at will – from fruit to potato chips and candy. Results showed that total calorie intake was significantly higher after the children were exposed to the food ads. Children of normal weight increased consumption by 84 percent, overweight children by 101 percent, and obese children by 134 percent even though the foods that the children were allowed to eat were not the ones that were advertised.
According to Dr. Jason Halford, Director of the University of Liverpool’s Kissileff Human Ingestive Behavior Laboratory and an investigator in this study, “That’s important because what we’re showing goes beyond branding effects. Advertisers have always argued that food ads do nothing but get kids to change from one brand to another for the same thing – the same argument tobacco companies used. This study shows that that’s completely incorrect. It doesn’t matter if the ad is for a specific product. It produces consumption. Kids consume after they see them.”
These studies suggest that to reduce over consumption and obesity, children may need to see fewer ads, not different ones. According to Marion Nestle, Professor at the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, the main nutrition message Americans need to hear is “Eat less” yet the food industry consistently encourages Americans to eat more, the necessary message for healthy profits if not healthy children.
Several recent and current government investigations have scrutinized food advertising to children. For example, this summer, the Federal Trade Commission will be issuing compulsory requests for information from 44 food, beverage, and quick-service restaurant chains. The FTC is especially interested in marketing practices of in-store promotions, events, packaging, internet marketing and product placement in video games, movies, and TV programs. According to the Institute of Medicine, annual sales of food and beverages to American children was more that $27 billion in 2002. Some researchers have calculated that children are exposed to 27 food ads a day and that most promote foods high in fat, sugar, and calories. As a result, children begin to make their first request for a product by two years of age, and 75 percent of those requests are for sugary cereals.
School foods have also become a new battleground. In an effort to lower the rates of childhood obesity, in April, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended strict standards to cut calories, fat, and sugar in all snacks and beverages sold in school vending machines, at fundraisers, and as a la carte items in school cafeterias. In school systems around the country, parents, teachers and food activists are struggling to clear schools of unhealthy food.
Many food industry executives resent government involvement and dread the close attention. One executive told Advertising Age, “It’s clearly a witch hunt.” He said if anyone is to be picked as the scapegoat it’s likely to be the fast food outlets that buy as much media for the 6-to-11-year-old set as other marketers spend on their entire annual budget.
The April announcement is in part a response to this growing government attention. Food industry leaders hope that their voluntary measures will stave off further oversight. Yet, research evidence suggests that voluntary guidelines developed by industry often fail to achieve their objectives. Recently two nutritionists reviewed changes in portion sizes of sodas, hamburgers and French fries at McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s and found few changes despite pledges by these companies to improve their offerings. The authors concluded that “voluntary efforts by fast-food companies to reduce portion sizes are unlikely to be effective, and that policy approaches are needed to reduce energy intake from fast food.”1
Historically the food and beverage industry have shown their capacity to respond quickly to public concerns about health. In 1991 the industry was called to introduce 5,000 new reduced fat food products by the year 2000 to support the Healthy People 2000 initiative – a goal they met by 1995. Yet as these new products came on the shelf, obesity rates continued to grow.
The Coca-Cola Company has been particularly adept in responding to new market forces. The Company’s global beverage portfolio now includes 400 brands that include soft drinks, diet soft drinks, juices, juice drinks, sports beverages, waters, teas, coffees, milk-based drinks and fortified beverages. However, no advertiser has yet promoted reduced consumption of such beverages or encouraged use of tap water, two messages that nutritionists support.
In fact, soft drink companies have been especially eager to promote physical activity, another avenue to weight reduction, rather than reduced consumption. For example, in its Get Active/Stay Active program, Pepsi Cola encourages young people to engage in sports and other physical activities while it still signs pouring rights contracts that require high schools to serve only Pepsi. The effort to divert blame for obesity to physical inactivity is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s attempt to point the finger at air pollution as the main cause of lung cancer. Both air pollution and physical inactivity warrant attention but the self-serving goal of the focus makes the message suspect.
Some countries have chosen alternatives to voluntary guidelines. In November 2006, the British food regulator agency banned advertising of high fat, salt and sugar foods in television programs made for children or of particular appeal to children under age 16. In announcing the new regulations, outgoing Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “Particularly where children are concerned, I have come to the conclusion we need to be tougher, more active in setting standards and enforcing them.” The British regulatory agency also decided to prohibit the use of licensed characters, celebrities, promotional offers and health claims in food advertising to children. Whether the United States is ready for such a step could make an important issue for the 2008 election.
1 Young LR, Nestle M. Portion sizes and obesity: responses of fast-food companies. J Public Health Policy. 2007;28(2):238-48.