How Not to Swallow Food Ads

WHEN Congress recently debated a bill to control cable TV, that industry received its share of bad press, with horror stories - often richly deserved - about soaring costs and plummeting service. Yet cable does do some things right, and not the least of them is to serve as an occasional check on the excesses of broadcasting when it comes to young viewers.

HBO's "Buy Me That! A Kids' Guide to Food Advertising," for instance, is a true public service. Airing Monday from 7:30 to 8 p.m., this special fairly bursts with pop-art and high-energy production techniques to get kids' attention so they'll absorb a desperately needed message: Be wary of the tube's daily blitz of food commercials.

Estimates put the number of TV commercials seen by kids every year at 30,000 to 40,000. If that sounds high, consider the daily four-to-five hours of TV kids watch on the average. Annually, they and their families spend around $9 billion on kids' products. Children are expected to spend about $2 million of their own money during this holiday season.

To tap this huge market, about $350 million is spent annually on TV to advertise kids' items. The result is brilliantly produced commercials designed to make kids say, as the show's title expresses it, "Buy Me That!" How can kids be expected not to feel this way when a figure like Michael Jordan smiles at them, says something nice about Gatorade, then takes a gulp? Or when an appealing cartoon character dances his way into their affections chirping the praises of a super-sugary breakfast cereal?

To get kids to look beyond the commercial hype, "Buy Me That!" takes an often hyper-active approach in selling food facts.

Since brand loyalty and switching are prime goals of competing commercials, the program stages a satirically suspenseful "taste challenge" to see if kids who swear by Coke can really distinguish it from Pepsi (most guessed wrong). It conducts a mock-pompous "high-level investigation" of the difference between "flavored" and real snacks. It shows how a burger is made camera-ready: painted with food-dye, festooned with glued-on sesame seeds, branded with stripes for a "grilled" effect, and split at the bac k so the patty can be squeezed forward to look fatter.

The show employs comically bombastic quiz-show and news-announcer voices to make what are sometimes drab, clinical points. The producers are not afraid to target real brands in segments like the one showing how many teaspoons of sugar are found in certain soft drinks (don't ask!). They're also not afraid to name brands that deliver on their promises.

It's easy, of course, for a channel that's not dependent on advertising, like HBO, to strike out at food commercials. It gets in its licks at the broadcast competition while also gaining credit for a pro-consumer show. But the message is an important one, delivered without hype at the end: "You've got the power to choose."

Taken seriously, it's a thought likely to strike terror in the hearts of the vested interests who stake millions on the premise that kids will not exercise that power. One of the youngsters in this show says a commercial he's seen for a particular product makes him feel " absolutely need it, otherwise you'll die." This program helps kids like him realize they won't.

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