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How the Junk Food Industry Targets Kids


It's Saturday morning, and most parents know where their kids are'parked in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons..

Between 1992 and 1997, money spent on marketing to children nearly doubled, from $6.9 billion to $12.7 billion.

In 1987, there was an average of 225 commercials on Saturday morning television. By 1994, that number had risen to 997. Of those commercials, 564, or 57 percent, advertised food and beverages of questionable nutritional value.

Source: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health and Nutrition by Marion Nestle (University of California Press, 2002)

It's Saturday morning, and most parents know where their kids are parked in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons.

For generations now, Saturday mornings on North American TV have been devoted to children's programming, creating a veritable tradition in households with kids. While moms and dads sleep in, snug in the belief that family entertainment is the only thing on air, youngsters get up early and flock around the TV set, eagerly awaiting the start of their favourite shows. But before they can see them, they must undergo one more rite of the weekend ritual: sitting through a long stream of commercials aimed directly at them.

These commercials wave potato chips in their faces, daring, "Betcha can't eat just one!" And they make a game out of scarfing down sugar-filled treats, casting them as "tons of chocolatey candy searching for a mouth!"

Some are a little more sophisticated, if no less specious. One for a brightly coloured, sweetened drink clearly directed at kids who have yet to master the concept of percentages touts it as "10-percent real fruit juice and vitamin C."

And another commercial wraps its sales pitch in moralizing so wholesome you'd be hard-pressed to guess it advertises junk food.

"Do you know how you would help a friend?" Ronald McDonald asks a group of sweet-faced children. After listening to their responses, such as giving their friend a hug if he feels sad, the clown mascot offers some sage advice: "I'd take all my friends to McDonald's for a Happy Meal," he says.

What harm can a steady diet of promotional sound bites like these an estimated 15,000 a year do to a child? Plenty, argue health and nutrition experts.

Moulding Consumers-For-Life

While evidence linking poor health to the proliferation of advertising may be circumstantial, it's powerful, nonetheless. In the half-century since the advent of television, the rate of obesity among North American youth has more than doubled. Shocked pediatricians have begun to see more and more cases of type II diabetes, a disease once unheard of among children. At the other end of the age continuum, diet-related chronic illnesses now cause almost as many premature deaths in the United States and Canada as the ravages of smoking.

Having studied the correlation between excessive TV watching and poor health, many researchers now believe that inquiring into youths' viewing habits yields substantially more information about their risk of heart disease than learning about their family history.

Source: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health and Nutrition by Marion Nestle (University of California Press, 2002)

To Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University, the evidence is clear: "many of the nutritional problems of [North] Americans-not the least of them obesity can be traced to the food industry's imperative to encourage people to eat more in order to generate sales and increase income." Advertising spearheads many means to that end, followed closely by the drive toward bigger and bigger portion sizes.

In their willingness to produce and market whatever sells, declares Nestle, "food companies hardly differ from cigarette companies." The big difference is that the ill effects of using and abusing their products don't appear nearly as obvious to most consumers as the consequences of smoking, which is exactly the way the food industry wants to keep it.

As Nestle points out in her book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (University of California Press, 2002), food companies have been exceptionally adept at convincing people that "there is no such thing as a 'good' food (except when it is theirs); that there is no such thing as a 'bad' food (especially not theirs); that all foods (especially theirs) can be incorporated into healthful diets; and that balance, variety and moderation are the keys to healthful diets which means that no advice to restrict intake of their particular product is appropriate."

Food companies spend more than $33 billion annually to market their products. Almost 70 per cent of this goes toward promoting fast foods, candy and snacks, alcohol, soft drinks and desserts, compared to only 2.2 per cent to promote fruits, vegetables, grains and beans.

Source: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health and Nutrition by Marion Nestle (University of California Press, 2002)

Adults should know better: as the old saying goes, let the buyer beware. But targeting kids is where Bill Jeffery, national coordinator of the Ottawa-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), draws the line.

'Kids' certainly those under the age of 13-aren't capable of critically analyzing television," remarks Jeffery. "They can't tell the difference between non-fiction and sales puffery." To make matters worse, he adds, nutritional habits formed in childhood generally stick for life. If, as a youngster, you learn to love salty, sugary or conveniently packaged foods, you'll likely obey that craving as an adult, even after you come to realize what it's doing to your health.

Children either buy or influence the decision to buy 25 percent of salty snacks, 30 percent of soft drinks, 40 percent of frozen pizza, 50 percent of cold cereals and 60 per cent of canned pasta.

Source: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Health and Nutrition by Marion Nestle (University of California Press, 2002)

While health advocates see a dangerous gap between child and adult understanding, marketers in the food industry see it as the perfect opening a once-in-a-generation chance to mould consumers-for-life.

Many food companies make no secret of the pre-eminence of marketing to kids in their overall marketing strategy. In 1999, for example, PepsiCo told the New York Times that increasing soft-drink consumption among six- to 12-year-olds had become a key priority. Just to prove it, the company signed on preteen idol Britney Spears as its main spokesperson.

Today, nearly half of all advertising being fed to children through TV screens is for junk food. Most of the rest, notes Jeffery, "are for products that require kids to sit down, like GameBoys and ads for other TV shows."

The CSPI wants the federal government to act before children watching those commercials fall prey to the same poor diet and lack of exercise that it cites as the probable cause of nearly 47,000 premature deaths every year. In April, the group sent a letter to Health Minister Anne McLellan urging a ban on all TV advertising of junk food, video games and other products that promote poor nutrition or physical inactivity among children. Jeffery says a number of MPs from different parties have already expressed an interest in either sponsoring or endorsing the proposed legislation.

Sugar Highs...and Lows

isn't the only front in the war between health advocates and junk-food marketers. In the mid-1990s, rising costs of TV advertising prompted two giants in the industry, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, to go back to school when it came to marketing to kids literally.

Taking stock of funding cuts to education, they started knocking on principals' doors, bearing gifts. In return for giving their company exclusive rights to sell to students, they offered a cash incentive, a portion of all vending-machine sales and free equipment such as scoreboards for the gymnasium and school banners for special events (branded, inevitably, with the company's logo). Most disturbing of all, to health advocates, they also offered handsome bonuses for reaching or exceeding their specified sales targets. For many cash-strapped schools, it was an offer too sweet to resist.

The practice of granting "pouring rights" has become commonplace in schools throughout North America. A 2000 study by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation found 48.2 per cent of Ontario schools had signed pouring-rights contracts with either Coke or Pepsi. About one-third of schools in BC and Alberta have struck similar deals.

Some agreements involve sums of money that give new meaning to the term "sugar high." In 2000, Coke won pouring rights from the Toronto District School Board, drowning out Pepsi's rival bid with a three-year contract that was awash in extravagant terms. While the board refused to reveal the exact amount that changed hands, it clearly wasn't chump change: media reports put it at about $6 million. The deal also gave the board a $0.30 share of every soft drink sold.

Fast-food chains have also begun to creep into schools. Franchises such as Mr. Sub, Pizza-Pizza and McDonald's now run their own stalls in many school cafeterias and cater lunch to classes during special "theme" days.

Not to be outdone, processed food manufacturers have found creative ways of familiarizing schoolchildren with their products, creating promotions in which students must collect labels, box tops and other items bearing the all-important "brandԖtypically for a cause that only the most Grinch-like of adults would dare to begrudge.

Health advocates and children's advocates believe all the traffic in junk food is sending kids confusing signals. "When children are taught in the classroom about good nutrition and the value of healthy food choices but are surrounded by vending machines, snack bars, school stores and ?a carte sales offering low nutrient density options, they receive the message that good nutrition is merely an academic exercise," stated the US Department of Agriculture in a 2000 report that concluded that the availability of junk food in schools was contributing to growing health problems among children.

A 2001 British study found that every serving of a "sugar-sweetened drink" multiplied a child's risk of obesity in adulthood by 1.6 times.

Source: The Lancet, March 2001

But if society is really serious about children's health, says Neil Worboys of the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF), it needs to look more closely at the reasons why schools keep making the Faustian pacts that they do. "The reason for schools agreeing to this comes down to making up for inadequate funding from government to support all the appropriate educational activities," argues Worboys, whose union has taken a strong stand against corporate marketing in schools.

Instead of fighting for more funding, though, many battle-weary school administrators have simply come to accept the presence of the food industry in education as a necessary evil. Writing anonymously as part of a BCTF survey on the subject, a teacher described an attempt by a group of teachers to send their school's Coke machine back to where it came from֓armed with our board's policy on nutritional snacks and other relevant information."

"You'd have thought we tried to organize a mutiny," the teacher reported. "In the end, vending machines and advertising stayed."

Meet the Parents

But even if government and educators can't, or won't, shield children from junk-food marketing, there is still one last line of defence their parents.

For companies that target children, parents are the ultimate force to be reckoned with. In the 1980s and '90s, parents demanded and received a new ratings system for video games and warning labels for CDs. The video-game and record industries were quick to capitulate to the wishes of moms and dads, knowing that the money to buy their products usually came out of parents' purses and wallets. Yet even as parents asserted their power as consumers, the increased targeting of children by advertisers went by largely unnoticed.

No longer. In this new, more media-savvy millennium, parents have finally begun to wake up to the dangers of junk-food advertising. They've read books such as Nestle's Food Politics and Naomi Klein's No Logo. They've surfed the Internet and leafed through magazines for information on taking charge of their own health. Now, they're primed to do battle for their kids.

Already, parents have won several major victories against junk-food marketers. In 2001, sensing a shift in public attitudes, Coca-Cola in the US announced it would start including more non-carbonated beverages in vending machines and tone down its heavy-handed marketing tactics in schools. It proved too little too late. A year later, as a result of parental lobbying, the massive Los Angeles school board decided to ban the selling of "liquid candy" soft drinks in all its schools effective January 2004. (Water, milk, drinks with at least 50-per-cent fruit juice and sports drinks with less than 42 grams of sugar will still be allowed.)

Shares in Coca-Cola and PepsiCo fizzled the day after the L.A. school board's decision, dropping by 1.28 per cent and 1.77 per cent, respectively.

Source: Calgary Herald, Aug. 29, 2002

Here in Canada, the two-year-old Advertising Committee of the District Parents Advisory Council for the Kootenay Lake School District in BC, is just one of dozens of parent groups that have sprung up in recent years out of growing concern over advertising to children. In a survey of area parents, 77 per cent were uncomfortable with advertisers targeting children as consumers, and an overwhelming 98 per cent wanted input on policies governing advertising.

For adults, says committee chairwoman Katia Dolan, the issue comes down to a fundamental question of values: as guardians of the future generation, what kind of society do we want them to have?

"I want a society that does not try to influence kids into brand faithfulness at a young age," she asserts, "but one that encourages, supports and creates a space for our next generation to be the most creative, critical thinking and healthy people they can be." And if that means a revolution-well, then, so be it.



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