Marketing Apples to Children? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Aug 21

Too many Canadian kids are fat.  This is a fact.  Over the past few years, newspapers and health advocates have decried the rising obesity rates, but it’s not headline news today.  As Canadians have come to accept this weighty truth and various organizations and governments scramble to find solutions, it’s hardly surprising that finger pointing has begun.  Who is to blame for this epidemic of chunkiness?  The list of culprits is exhausting and their culpability impossible to define – from the nutritionists in Michael Pollan’s bestseller In Defense of Food (Fat bad!  Carbohydrates good!) to parenting experts that bemoan Mommy’s use of the word “no” – the blame game will very likely find few winners.  A recent report by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, however, shows both the food and media industries are strong contenders.

 

According to the report, $1.6 billion was spent in 2006 by 44 major food and beverage marketers to promote their goodies to kids aged 2 to 17 years old.  For children aged 2 to 11 years, a total of $229 million was invested in breakfast cereals alone – while the amount spent on fruits and vegetables was $8.4 million.  Is it any wonder then, that kids are especially vocal about their preferences in the cereal aisle of the grocery store?  Take a teen to the local Loblaws, and it’s more likely to be the soda shelves that invigorate his taste buds.  That’s because the marketing strategy shifts toward carbonated beverages for 12 to 17 year olds where $472.2 million was invested in making sure your kid begs for Red Bull rather than V-8.  In that same age category, fruits and vegetables received a measly $6.2 million to promote their not so hip qualities.

 

The report also chastises the media for bombarding children and teens with messages and images that promote unhealthy eating habits through television advertising, the internet, and movie tie-ins.  In the reported year, food and beverage products were tied to about 80 movies, television shows, and animated characters that appeal to children.  It specifically cites the use of characters from Superman Returns and Pirates of the Caribbean to sell fatty food products.  According to a National Post article by John Hiscock, Dr. Martin Schiff, weight-loss expert and best-selling author of The Thin Connection, goes a step further in blaming Hollywood for North America’s gluttonous habits.  He is now part of a health campaign that urges the movie industry to add a new rating – “O” for Obesity.  According to Schiff, shows such as Sex in the City where skinny, beautiful women constantly eat yet never gain weight are setting an unhealthy example for thousands of children (as opposed to the promiscuous sex and shallow lifestyles?)  While this proposal is a noble effort to curb the overeating that has gripped our youngest generation, it’s not likely that an industry that profits from gratuitous violence and lurid sex scenes is going to omit all-you-can-eat buffet scenes from their movies.  Furthermore, parents busy censoring their children from lewd language, nudity and blood spilling are not about to whisper “cover your eyes” when some chubby kid eats a twinkie on the silver screen. 

 

A battle against America’s corporations to focus their energies less on junk food and more on healthy eating is, quite frankly, fruitless.  Although the report concedes that some of the largest food and beverage companies have taken “important steps to encourage better nutrition and fitness among the nation’s children” by limiting their advertising to foods that meet certain nutritional standards, if the “standards” are met by injecting a few vitamins into a sugar-laden gummy, children and parents are not much better off.   Maybe advertisers will bear some of the responsibility for North America’s unhealthy eating habits, and maybe they won’t.  Only time will tell.  But one thing is certain, all this finger wagging and strongly worded criticisms will do little to shrink the enlarged girth of a ten-year-old.  Regular trips to the farmer’s market, less time in front of the television, and a firm and well-practiced “No” will shed pounds and transform bad eating habits long before anyone sees an ad touting the funky pink treat that dances in your mouth and spreads cool antioxidants to your finger tips called … Watermelon!

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