The Shrek Conflict of Interest Debate

Shrek

“Conflict of interest” seems to be the phrase of the year as, one after another, relationships are questioned. Should the Funky Junky Candy Corp. be funding a scientific journal about childhood obesity, or enlisting as a sponsor in the government’s anti-obesity drive, or bankrolling the obesity research at a major university? On one hand, the temptation is to say, “Why not? Surely, we want food manufacturers as allies in the fight against childhood obesity. And they can certainly afford it.” On the other hand, you just get a sneaky feeling that maybe something is wrong with this picture.

Dr. Pretlow has pointed out several worrisome examples of ties between interests that perhaps should not be quite so cozy with each other, if ending childhood obesity is the actual goal. Other posts have also discussed matters of funding and independence, corporate accountability, and the conflict between government farm policies and the dangers of certain foods.

What could possibly remain to explore? How about an interesting episode in the conflicting-interest history, the Shrek scandal. Back in 2007, according to Bruce Horovitz of USA Today, the imaginary cartoon movie star’s “likability” score with kids was second only to that of Santa Claus. The jovial Shrek came under fire from child advocacy groups, not for being green with funny ears, but for being two-faced.

Shrek was signed up to promote several brands of candy, cereal, cheesy snacks, and McDonald’s Happy Meals. At the same time, he appeared in public-service television commercials encouraging kids to get more exercise so they wouldn’t be obese — “Get Up and Play and Hour a Day.” The exercise-encouraging commercials were made by the Ad Council’s Coalition for Healthy Children, whose members included Kellogg and PepsiCo. By a strange twist of fate, both those corporate entities were at the same time promoting sugar-laden, unhealthful snacks with Shrek too.

The other group behind the commercials, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, was asked by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood to put a stop to this dual personality manifestation. Horovitz quotes the organization’s co-founder, Susan Linn, as saying,

The food industry and the government can’t have it both ways. Either (Shrek’s) a pitchman for junk food or a spokesman for health and well-being. Those are mutually exclusive roles.

Digging deeper, the CCFC identified 17 different food promotions geared to correspond with the release of the third Shrek movie, involving over 70 products in all, mainly the kind that are charitably called “energy-dense, low-nutrient,” and less kindly called junk.

Last week Brie Cadman, health editor at Change.org, described current activism in middle America. Cadman is an extremely knowledgeable reporter with a Master of Public Health degree, who has worked as a clinical trial coordinator and a biochemist, as well as an indoor pollution researcher. The state of Nebraska would like to prohibit the inclusion of toys with children’s meals that don’t come up to the nutritional mark. She writes,

The measure, LB 126, ‘The Children’s Health and Responsible Corporate Marketing Act,’ would curb the inclusion of Shrek, Darth Vader and other popular icons in kid’s meals that have more than 500 calories. In addition, the meals can’t exceed 640 milligrams of sodium and have to include at least one cup of fruit or vegetables that haven’t been fried. It would also place limits on saturated fats, trans fats and sugar.

Nearly one-third of Nebraska’s children are overweight or obese, and research has shown that when it comes to Happy Meals, for instance, they are more attracted by the toys. The fast food is of secondary importance to their desires, but of grave importance to their future health. Low-nutrient, high-calorie food is of course a major cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. If one state takes a stand for the separation of food and toys, others could follow suit, causing major waves in the fast-food advertising industry.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Shrek, promoter of sugary treats, thumped as exercise advocate,”  USA Today, 04/25/07
Source: “Shrek Food,” CCFC
Source: “Nebraska Moves to Ban Toys in Fast-Food Kid’s Meals,” Change.org, 02/02/11
Image by joiseyshowaa, used under its Creative Commons license.

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