Childhood Obesity and the Battle for Kids’ Minds

Kill Your Television

The way law professor Joel Bakan sees it, two huge trends are colliding. At a certain point in history, children were recognized as people, and, furthermore, as a class of people deserving of a protected status. It became generally acknowledged that the interests of the children should be the first consideration, or at least in the upper handful of considerations.

Then, corporations were recognized as people, and given even more privileges and exceptions than they had previously enjoyed. The basic tenet of American society now seems to be that the interests of the corporation should be the most important factor in any situation.

Obviously, Bakan says, the two had to collide:

Deregulation, privatization, weak enforcement of existing regulations and legal and political resistance to new regulations have eroded our ability, as a society, to protect children.

The concept that the children’s best interests should be uppermost is a tool that can cut both ways. Almost anything can be advocated by framing the argument as in the children’s best interest. For example, many believe that it is more important for a child to grow up in a society with free speech, which in some cases means unfettered advertising.

The writer reminds us of the Kaiser Family Foundation study showing that kids spend more time with electronic media than they spend in school. (Plus, they spend a lot of their in-school time with electronic media, too.) The point being, they soak in a lot of advertising.

Here is how Jill Richardson described the “prevailing deregulatory environment” we have been living in:

Those who market to children do this through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. Companies that participate in the initiative pledge to shift at least 50 percent of their advertising directed at children under 12 to encourage ‘better for you’ choices. Unfortunately, foods that are ‘better for you’ than junk are often themselves mostly junk, just slightly less so. Food marketers also self-regulate through their notoriously lax police arm, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (organized by the major advertising industry trade associations), which recommends companies reform their ads when they go over the line in advertising to kids.

It’s pretty well accepted by now that kids don’t get fat from watching videos or educational programs with no commercials, yet somehow they do get fat from watching TV programming interspersed with fast food and junk food commercials. It’s also pretty clear that “self-regulation” is a joke, which Richardson explains in great detail.

And here’s the punch line: Quibbling over self-regulation ignores the more basic and much more important question of whether marketing to children should be allowed at all. Richardson says,

Even though the government has the clear authority to pass binding regulations to curb marketing to children, they plan to just politely request that companies refrain from marketing the worst junk to kids as they continue their love affair with self-regulation.

Even worse is the disguised advertising, like product placement. Here’s how it works: A corporation takes the pledge to not market junk food to kids, then turns around and bargains with television shows to display their products within the context of the shows themselves. Reuters reporter Lauren Keiper gives the example of Coca-Cola, whose products are seen constantly, for instance on “American Idol,” to the point where kids would see five times as many product placements as paid ads.

This information came from Jennifer Harris of the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who said,

It is even more difficult for younger children to understand this is advertising and that it is persuading them to do something that isn’t the best thing for them.

Harris and her team analyzed all of prime-time television for the year 2008 and found 35,000 brand placements just in prime-time shows. That’s a lot of subliminal advertising!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Kids Are Not All Right,” The New York Times, 08/21/11
Source: “Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children,” AlterNet, 03/23/10
Source: “TV product placements termed junk food ad loophole,” Reuters UK, 08/02/11
Image by Vik Nanda, used under its Creative Commons license.

Comments

  1. Kudos to you for attacking this timely topic! I am concerned about product placement ads too, and I am shocked at the number you site – 35,000 in prime time alone!

    There seems to be a 3rd trend colliding with these two, and that is the rights of parents. Our business focuses on family health through nutrition and we find that many parents don’t want anyone else telling them how to raise their children. Look at the recent reaction of the politicians like Sarah Palin to this topic. She laments that we live in a “nanny state” when the government requires food manufacturers to provide nutritional information, and uses made-for-tv quotes like “who should decide what our kids eat, the government or parents!”

    How are we to break the cycle of obesity and preventable chronic illness in this country when many parents think it is an intrusion on their rights to just be given nutrition information? It is a sad state of affairs!

    • Pat Hartman says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for responding. I just feel sorry for whoever it was, had to count all those commercials. A dire fate.

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