Food Marketing: Still Serving Our Kids Unhealthy Options

Opinion

By: Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, MBA and Bettina Elias Siegel

Last year, America’s food, beverage, and restaurant companies spent $13.5 billion to advertise their products, mostly promoting fast food, snack foods, candy, and sugary drinks. We adults hardly need more encouragement to eat these unhealthy foods, but this advertising deluge is especially troubling when it comes to impressionable kids. There’s a direct connection between food marketing and children’s food preferences and eating behaviors, yet these companies spend almost $2 billion annually to specifically target children with their ads.

This is an issue parents care deeply about. According to a recent survey, 85 percent of parents said food companies should reduce unhealthy food marketing to children, and 71 percent agreed that food companies act irresponsibly when they advertise to children. As parents ourselves, we couldn’t agree more.

But the food and beverage industries have long profited from stoking children’s desire for their products, and they’re reluctant to lose that revenue source. That’s why, despite a decade of voluntary self-regulation, a new report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food, Policy & Obesity finds that our kids are still bombarded with advertising for the least healthy items.

Industry self-regulation first began in 2007 when 10 of the largest food and beverage companies formed the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Now with 18 companies participating, CFBAI members pledge to encourage “healthier dietary choices” through the ads they place in “child-directed media.”

That commitment sounds promising on its face and CFBAI companies have, by and large, lived up to their pledges. The Rudd Center found that from 2007 to 2016, the number of food ads on kids’ television shows declined by 45 percent, primarily from reduced advertising by CFBAI companies. CFBAI companies have also reduced internet advertising to kids.

Nevertheless, the Rudd Center also found that last year kids viewed, on average, 11 food-related ads on television every day — primarily for junk food — while less than 10 percent of food ads they saw promoted healthier products.

How is it possible that the industry has lived up to its promises without meaningfully improving the ads to which our kids are exposed?

One glaring weakness is the CFBAI’s definition of “healthier dietary choices,” which is determined using its own nutrition criteria. Those criteria have improved over the years, but they’re still so weak that compliant products include Chocolate Lucky Charms and Popsicles. Indeed, the majority of CFBAI-compliant products can’t be served in public schools due to excessive calories, sugar, and/or fat.

Another weakness is that CFBAI companies can freely advertise their brands to kids if just one product under a brand meets the organization’s nutrition criteria and is the ad’s featured item. For example, McDonald’s can blanket children’s television with Happy Meal commercials so long as the particular meal depicted includes apple slices and milk.

Then there’s CFBAI’s definition of “child-directed” media, which requires that 35 percent or more of a show’s audience be under age 12. That definition covers children’s cartoons, but it leaves companies with many other effective ways of reaching kids, such as websites with kids’ games, YouTube channels, animated holiday TV specials, cartoon characters on product packaging, and smartphone apps.

Finally, there’s the definition of “children,” which the CFBAI caps at age 11 but which health advocates have argued should extend at least to age 14. (Federal agencies have suggested age 17.) If you think teenagers don’t need this protection, you’re likely unfamiliar with today’s cleverly disguised marketing tactics, including fast food mobile apps that track teens’ locations and send them coupons when they’re nearby, product placements woven into video games and TV shows, and social media posts that exploit peer pressure.

If industry remains unwilling to clean up its act, policymakers must step up to the plate. Congress should follow the example of countries like Chile, which restrict food marketing to children, including using child-friendly characters to sell unhealthy products. And it should do away with an existing tax deduction companies can take for marketing unhealthy products to children.

We also need to know the full scope of this problem. It’s been five years since the Federal Trade Commission last issued a comprehensive report on food and beverage companies’ marketing expenditures targeted to children and adolescents, and an update is overdue.

Finally, the CFBAI must adopt stronger rules for its members. In 2011, food industry lobbying crushed a set of proposed voluntary guidelines put forward by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, comprised of four federal agencies. But if adopted, those guidelines would effectively close the CFBAI’s glaring loopholes.

In this era of widespread childhood obesity, kids urgently need consistent messages promoting healthy eating. Parents clearly support this goal. Schools are already acting on it. And after a decade of ineffectual self-regulation, it’s long past time for industry to stop undermining children’s health for profit.

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Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, MBA is the Director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity and Associate Professor in Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut.

Bettina Elias Siegel blogs about children and food policy at The Lunch Tray and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Kid Food: Why Our Children Are Deluged By Junk Food — and What We Can Do About It” (Oxford University Press).