An American Dilemma


Yesterday Childhood Obesity News reviewed some of the debates around advertising, food advertising and advertising to children in particular. There has been fierce disagreement over the right of corporations to claim free speech. Entire careers are devoted to specialized areas of that question. Dr. Pretlow has pointed out that “children do not have the intellectual ability to understand the message of such advertising.”

A child watching a commercial is not equipped to decode it properly. A kid can’t read the message, “Make Mommy give you this product, under threat of never enjoying a peaceful day,” although that is the intent of the communication. No, the message a kid takes away is, “Fuzzy-Wub loves you, and will love you even more if you eat the cereal with his picture on the box,” or, later, “When you drink this fluorescent liquid from a colorful bottle you will acquire superpowers, or at the very least, others will know you are cool.”

In many countries, the free speech issue does not arise, because the administration can just decree “No junk food ads on TV until after midnight,” or whatever. So they have a way to prevent offensive advertising, which is good; but no First Amendment, a lack that Americans generally consider not so good.

Many objections to advertising to children

The controversy periodically flares up, as it did in early 2012, when writer Mark Bittman railed against a culture that allowed kids to be “bombarded by propaganda so clever and sophisticated that it amounts to brainwashing.” He also criticized the invocation of the First Amendment to safeguard the impunity with which corporations marketed harmful junk food to children. Serious violations were on the horizon, or were already taking place.

There were concerns about the collection of private data from children too young to understand that they should not freely give out personal information. Bittman mentions an advergame that asked children’s permission to film them through their webcams — but without asking them to verify their ages — which would have revealed of course that they did not have legal standing to give that permission.

Still, the main concern was health. A working group of federal agencies had been formed to draft nutrition standards that would merely serve as non-binding suggestions, but the industry would have none of it, and indignantly urged citizens to keep the nosy, interfering government out of their kitchens.

Of course, that ostensibly patriotic battle cry did not even address the real point — it’s not our kitchens we are worried about, but our children’s growing bodies and minds. People were thinking, if troops march into the kitchen, we will deal with it then. But right now, weird ideas about food are infiltrating the kids’ heads on a daily basis.

There is a legal test for judging whether commercial speech qualifies for protection under the First Amendment. Called the Central Hudson test, it says that such speech must be truthful and not “actually or inherently misleading.”

Mark Bittman wrote those words, which will be further discussed.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Right to Sell Kids Junk,”, 03/27/12
Images: Fair use

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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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