As Congress holds hearings on the escalating problem of childhood obesity, it should make the food industry's culpability a central part of their investigation. Too often parents are told that it is their job to promote healthy nutrition, even as corporations undermine their efforts by spending billions of dollars marketing junk food to children.
Controversy over advertising candy, snacks, and sugar cereals on television is not new. The advocacy group Action for Children's Television took on that battle in the 1970s. But today, despite the 1990 Children's Television Act, which limits advertising time (but not what is advertised) during children's programming, children see about 40,000 commercials on TV each year. A large proportion of advertising on programs children watch is for foods high in fat, sugar, and calories.
Children are especially vulnerable to the impact of advertising. A recent study out of Stanford University found that one 30-second commercial can influence the brand choices of children as young as 2. Repeated exposures to ads are even more effective. Very young children don't distinguish between a commercial and television programming. And children under 8 aren't able to understand that ads are created to convince people to buy products.
In the past decade, techniques for marketing unhealthy food to children have become increasingly sophisticated and insidious. Marketing junk food in schools is a growth industry. Earlier this spring, The New York Times reported that $750 million is spent annually selling snacks and processed foods in schools. Visit any supermarket and you will find shelves filled with links between the media industry and food manufacturers.
For example, consider the current blockbuster movie, "Spider-Man." Images of the masked superhero grace packages of Froot Loops breakfast cereal. Eggo Waffles' boxes include Spider-Man glow-in-the-dark stickers. Hershey's sells Spider-Man canes filled with chocolate kisses. Such tie-ins are designed to lure children into selecting food based on favorite movie or TV characters rather than on healthy eating.
A recent trip to the mega-toy store, Toys 'R' Us, revealed even more worrisome trends. The food industry has joined with toy manufacturers to create toys that advertise food. For example, Mattel now produces a McDonald's Barbie "fun time play set." The box, adorned with the enticement, "Lots of yummy food," contains miniature French fries, Big Macs, and other high-calorie delights including a Sprite soft drink machine. Hasbro offers a McDonald's Play-Doh set with molds for burgers, buns, and machines for churning out shakes and soft-serve ice cream.
Even worse are "toys" that actually are food. The Hasbro M&M Mini Candy Copter comes replete with a replaceable canister filled with M&Ms. Spin Pops linked to media hits such as Spider-Man, Powerpuff Girls, and Batman are lollipops that fit into a battery-operated spinning handle. Some even vibrate and make sounds when you push a button. Such products are turning play the birthright of every child into a health issue.
Society should be supporting parents in their efforts to raise healthy children, not making it more difficult. The United States regulates marketing to children less than most other industrialized democracies. Instead, American children are bombarded by seductive marketing campaigns for soda, candy, flavored French fries, and other foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. Any genuine effort to reduce childhood obesity must attack the problem at its roots. And that means holding the food industry responsible for its role in creating the problem.
Susan Linn is associate director of the media center of Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. Diane E. Levin is professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. The authors are co-founders of the coalition Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children.