Less Food Marketing, Healthier Children

By Colleen Doyle, MS, RD

Have you seen all those fun and flashy commercials encouraging your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables? No? Neither have I. And there’s a reason for that. 

Out of the $1.79 billion that the Federal Trade Commission says major food and beverage companies spent marketing foods and beverages to kids and teens (in 2009 – the most recent data available), less than .05% was spent marketing fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately for those of us who care about children’s health – which I hope is all of us – the majority of those dollars was spent on marketing unhealthy foods and beverages. Forty percent was spent to market fast food and other restaurant foods, and another 22% was spent promoting high-sugar sodas and other carbonated beverages.

And consider these additional statistics:

  • Two BILLION advertisements for foods and drinks appeared on websites directed at kids in 2009, mostly for sugary cereals and fast food.
  • Dollars spent to market foods and drinks to kids via online games, mobile apps, social network ads, and other digital media increased by 51% from 2006 to 2009.
  • Companies spent $149 MILLION in 2009 to market sugary drinks and food in schools.
  • Companies spent $113 MILLION in 2009 on packaging with marketing aimed at kids (think SpongeBob, Hello Kitty, and other characters).
  • Fast-food restaurants spent over $700 MILLION in 2009 on marketing to kids, nearly half of which was spent on kids’ meal toys and giveaways.
  • Kids saw 12 to 16 TV advertisements per day for unhealthy foods or drinks in 2011.
  • Eighty-four percent of foods and drinks advertised to kids on Spanish-language television are unhealthy. [more]

And according to the Institute of Medicine, such advertising and marketing does indeed influence children’s preferences, purchase requests, and diets – and is a contributing factor to the rates of overweight and obesity seen among US youth. Over the past 3 decades, rates of obesity have more than doubled among children ages 2 to 11 and have more than tripled among teens ages 12 to 18. In 2012, 28.5% of Caucasian youth ages 2-19, 32.5% of African American youth, and 38.9% of Latino youth were overweight or obese. If we are going to turn around the youth obesity trends in this country, addressing advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to kids is going to have to be part of the equation.

You might wonder why the issue of food advertising and marketing and its impact on youth health is of concern to the American Cancer Society.  It’s estimated that 1/3 of all cancers are associated with nutrition and physical activity factors, including extra weight.  And according to Centers for Disease Control, children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults – thus putting them at risk for developing obesity-related cancers when they are adults. The cancer death rate has been declining since the early 1990s, and we want to see that trend continue.  Therefore, efforts to help children establish lifelong healthy behaviors – like eating well and being physically active – are important to the mission of the American Cancer Society.

The reality is that some progress has been made in reducing advertising and marketing of high-calorie, high-sugar, and low-nutrient foods and beverages to kids.  But not enough progress has been made. A number of companies participate in the Council of Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which has set voluntary standards for advertising and marketing to kids, but even then, there are loopholes. For example, member companies pledging to market only healthier fare to kids still placed 46 million ads for sugar-sweetened beverages on kids’ websites in 2013.

Much work to date has focused on establishing standards for the nutritional quality of foods and beverages advertised and marketed to youth, but less attention has been paid to defining what actually constitutes advertising and marketing practices that target youth. Because of that, many children remain vulnerable to current industry marketing practices and tactics.  Existing definitions of marketing to kids do not address the wide range of new digital and interactive media currently used to reach kids; definitions for marketing in schools do not include middle and high schools; child-directed marketing definitions to do not include child- and youth-targeted product packaging, in-store promotions, and toy premiums.

A new report released today, from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program Recommendations for Responsible Food Marketing to Children  can help change that.  The report, which American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network policy experts participated in the development of, provides a comprehensive set of recommendations for food marketing practices directed toward children – all which are designed to help close major loopholes in current voluntary standards that leave our children unprotected from negative advertising and marketing influences.

Key recommendations have been made that can change the way the industry talks to children and influences their eating choices. Our news article explains all of them, and why they’ll make a difference. 

It’s been suggested that because of unhealthy diets and physically inactive lifestyles – and the resulting impact on overweight and obesity — this generation of youth will live shorter and less healthy lives than their parents.  The advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages is contributing to this devastating projection.  As parents, as health professionals, and as concerned citizens, we need to speak up and take action. Food and beverage companies must be encouraged to strengthen their policies on food marketing to children. Companies not participating in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative should be urged to join.  Companies should establish more responsible policies for marketing to children that close loopholes and ensure that youth are not regularly exposed to unhealthy food and beverage ads and other forms of marketing. In addition, school districts should update their local school wellness policies to only allow foods and beverages meeting science-based nutrition standards to be sold in K-12 schools.  While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed regulations to this effect, school districts do not need to wait for federal policy to be finalized to update and strengthen their own policy.

Be an advocate for children’s health. Demand that companies market their products more responsibly by writing to them and calling them out on social media.

But you can work at home for healthier children, too. Speak up at your kids’ schools.  Be aware and mindful as you walk down the aisles at your grocery store.  Turn off the television, and limit screen time. 

It takes a village.  We can make a difference. This generation, and those to come, are counting on us.

 

Doyle is managing director of healthy eating active living environments (HEALE) for the American Cancer Society.

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