Television Advertising and Childhood Obesity, Part 3

My television. My rules

There are two really good reasons to limit screen time for kids (and grownups too). Reason Number One: If you’re facing a monitor, you’re probably sitting still. Reason Number Two: If you aspire to sane eating habits, network television will try your patience and crumble your resolve. TV commercials are slick, persuasive, and dangerous. It used to be simpler, back when network television was the only obstacle to be contended with. Now, product placement is ubiquitous.

A nonprofit group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, also known as the PCRM, examined ads that are directed specifically toward children and discovered the five most grievously unhealthful meals touted in that market sector. We’re talking junk food here. We’re talking cholesterol bombs, to borrow a term from Susan Levin, PCRM’s director of nutrition education, who also says,

We’re losing the war against childhood obesity, but fast-food chains are still making obscene profits by targeting children with high-fat meals.

We bet you’re anxious to know the top five perpetrators, starting with the worst. The PCRM provides a handy chart, and why are we not surprised to learn that McDonald’s is on top of the heap? Behold the McDonald’s Mighty Kids Meal: double cheeseburger, French fries and chocolate milk. The thing weighs in at 840 calories, 37 grams of fat, and nearly a whole day’s worth of salt.

The runners-up are Wendy’s Kids’ Meal, KFC’s Kids’ Meal, A&W’s Kids’ Meal, and Burger King’s BK Kids. Last year, the Institute of Medicine enumerated a set of nutritional standards for kids’ lunches, and not one of these abominations would pass.

The billboard pictured on this page, by the way, comes from a group called Champions for Change, whose agenda is short and sweet: making changes in kitchens, homes, schools and neighborhoods. It believes in more fruits and vegetables, more activity (which means less television), and more voices raised for healthy changes.

Aside from inspiring kids to demand stuff they never would have thought of otherwise, and aside from providing some truly horrendous role models, advertising is just plain full of baloney. Small children and many older children are simply not equipped to evaluate claims and recognize snake oil. Michele Simon, author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back, says,

If a child cannot comprehend the ad’s persuasive intent, it is immoral to advertise anything to that child.

Alternet’s Jill Richardson believes that if advertising can’t be escaped, it can be turned to our advantage. She says that some families have a rule that “the family must discuss and deconstruct each TV commercial as they watch TV.” This sounds promising — why not make a game out of it? Children actually do have pretty good lie detectors, once you point them in the right direction, and you might be surprised at the results. Richardson also offers an interesting historical note:

Until 2008, it wasn’t unheard of for children’s report cards to sport the Golden Arches, offering a free Happy Meal to elementary school children with good grades. McDonald’s ended the program when it received negative press attention.

See? We can make a difference. This kind of thing can be stopped. And when it does occur — when a child shows up with a report card embellished with golden arches — maybe that’s a heaven-sent opportunity to take that child out for a nice walk and have a talk about concepts like trust and deception.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “McDonald’s, Wendy’s Top List of Five Worst Fast-Food Kids Meals,” News and Media Center, 08/25/10
Source: “Behind the Shady World of Marketing Junk Food to Children,”, 03/23/10
Image by Lisa Newton, used under its Creative Commons license.

One Response

  1. I stay fit and yet I watch a ton of TV. I also either MUTE the commercials and do something else during, OR I pop in a VHS exercise video and do them on the commercials.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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