Solving Childhood Obesity Part IV – Food Marketing

The marketers that come up with advertising campaigns for the food industry are pure genius.  They can take a food that is completely unhealthy and spin the commercial so that it appears as if the food is as good (if not better) than any health food available.  My rant on Tostitos is a good example. (Click here to read the post.) Some excerpts and statistics from this blog were taken directly from the Let’s Move Report to the President available at www.letsmove.gov.

Honey Nut And Chocolate Cheerios are Health Foods!

I recently saw another good example.  This was a Honey Nut Cheerios commercial.  It started about by talking about cholesterol and how high levels of the stuff can be bad for you.  Then it mentions how whole grains can improve cholesterol numbers.  I have issues with that statement as well but that’s a whole different post.  The commercial continues and states that Honey Nut Cheerios is made from whole grains and in a “study” was shown to reduce cholesterol.  We are of course provided no information on this so called study, but it sounds official so it’s included in the commercial.  They also put a big read heart on the box to suggest that eating Honey Nut Cheerios is heart healthy.  At the end of the commercial they also introduce Chocolate Cheerios and it too has a big red heart on the box!  It’s heart healthy too!  The problem?  Honey Nut Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios are not heart healthy!  In fact, they are the opposite.  They are loaded with sugar and are not a good way for children to start the day.

Both Honey Nut Cheerios and Chocolate Cheerios provides a child with the equivalent of more than 4 teaspoons of sugar to start the day.  That’s equal to half a soda for breakfast.  Would you let your child drink half a soda for breakfast?  Probably not.  But wait, Cheerios does provide vitamins and minerals, right?  Yes, they do but what if Coca Cola decided to fortify its soda with vitamins and minerals?  Does it make soda healthy?  Certainly not.  I have provided the nutrition information and packaging of both Cheerios below for your viewing pleasure.

As you can see, both boxes have the big red heart on them.  The marketers know that the vast majority of people that see this box with assume that means Cheerios is healthy and that’s a major problem because it’s cereals like this that are contributing to childhood obesity is a big way.

The Marketing Billions

Food marketing to children and adolescents is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates
that, in 2006, food, beverage, and quick-serve restaurant companies spent more than $1.6 billion to promote their products to young people. Children and adolescents are an important demographic for marketers for several reasons: (1) they are customers themselves; (2) they influence purchases made by parents and caregivers; and (3) they are the future adult market.  The last reason is of particular importance to marketers.  Just like the cigarette companies of the 50’s and 60’s, the food industry knows that if it can get you hooked on their products as a child, you are unlikely to change as an adult.  Habits are hard to break.

Food and beverage companies utilize a full range of marketing techniques including print, internet advertising (such as advergames), product packaging, in-school marketing, cross-promotions, prizes and contests, and the use of popular licensed characters that appeal to children and adolescents.

Marketing Works (Unfortunately)

Research conducted by the Sesame Street Workshop in 2005 found a strong influence of popular licensed characters on preschoolers’ food preferences. When preschoolers were asked if they would rather eat broccoli or a Hershey’s chocolate bar, 78% of the children chose the chocolate bar and only 22% chose broccoli. When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, however, 50% of the children chose broccoli.  This shows that children are extremely impressionable and will likely always want to eat the foods that have the marketing behind them.  Unfortunately, this is almost always foods that are nutrient empty.

Can Big Business Police Itself?

The food industry claims it is concerned with the health of children.  In 2006 the Council of Better Business Bureaus established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).  CFBAI was intended to change the ratio of food and beverage advertising messages directed to children under the age of 12 to encourage healthier eating and lifestyles. It has 16 current member companies – Burger King, Cadbury Adams, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, ConAgra Foods, Dannon, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, McDonald’s, Nestle, PepsiCo, Post Foods, and Unilever.

These companies are doing this on a voluntary basis and have set guidelines for themselves:

  1. 100% of child-directed television, print, radio, and internet advertising must promote “healthier dietary choices” or “better-for-you” products.
  2. Products depicted in child-directed interactive games must be “better-for-you” foods or the games must incorporate healthy lifestyle messages.
  3. Companies must reduce their use of third-party licensed characters in advertising that does not promote healthy dietary choices or healthy lifestyles.
  4. Companies must not pay for or actively seek placement of their products in entertainment directed at children.
  5. Companies must not advertise food or beverage products in elementary schools.

While these guidelines sound noble, it’s like asking the wolves to guard the sheep. A recent examination of the CFBAI has showed that it really is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to appease the public while continuing to do what they have always done.

The Federal Trade Commission’s 2008 report on the CFBAI noted that the participating companies’ nutritional standards, as well as their definitions of “child-directed,” vary by company. Within certain guidelines, each company developed its own nutritional standards for what constitutes a “better for you” food or a “healthy dietary choice.” Moreover, the FTC criticized the program for applying these standards only to certain forms of advertising.

A recent study analyzed the effectiveness of the CFBAI and found that it had not substantially shifted advertising for children toward healthier products. Using one measure of nutritional quality, the study determined that, in 2009, advertisements for healthy products accounted for a very small fraction of all advertising by participating companies, while most advertising promoted foods of low nutritional value. The study also found that companies participating in the CFBAI nearly doubled the use of licensed characters over the past four years, increasing from use in 8.8% of advertisements in 2005 to 15.2% in 2009. Roughly half of all advertisements with these characters are for foods in the lowest nutritional category.

This clearly shows that while the guidelines have been set, they are not abiding by them at all.  And why would they?  There is no actual power in this CFBAI.  It’s a voluntary group that is regulating itself.  The food industry is not going to do anything that may cost them any profit.  The sad fact is though that it is costing the youth of America their health.

The Solution

There has got to be tighter regulation on what is termed health food.  Just because it contains whole grains does not make it a health food.  Industry wide changes need to be made.  Official guidelines need to be set that categorize foods into good and bad (easier said than done, I might add) and these big companies need to be forced to adhere to them.  The consequences of not doing so need to be severe as well.

Another big part of the problem is the lack of education in the general public.  I see these ads and brush them off as ridiculous.  I can do this because I’ve had years of nutritional training.  While it does not take years to train someone how to eat and evaluate food properly, the food industry knows that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad foods.  They also know that people trust what they see on television.  If they are told that Chocolate Cheerios are heart healthy then it  must be true.

Education is the only real solution to this problem.  Children need to be taught from a young age what foods are good for you and what foods should be viewed as treats and eaten sparingly.  My advice to my patients is always the same – if it comes in a box and is processed, don’t eat it. Those are the most likely culprits to destroy your health.  Shop around the edges of the grocery store.  Skip those middle aisles with all the cookies, snacks and cereals.  Most of the cereals on the market today are no better than a box of cookies anyway.  If you do this, you’ll live a healthier and happier life.

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3 Comments

Filed under Diet, Public Health

3 responses to “Solving Childhood Obesity Part IV – Food Marketing

  1. It’s very tricky, but explaining what commercials and marketing material is to children at an early age is one place to start. It takes an educated parent to take the time to say “This is a company trying to use words, pictures, and other techniques to get you to buy their product.” But I fear most adults don’t look at advertising and marketing in the same way. I’d dare venture most don’t think much about the psychology of marketing at all.

    Regards,

    Steve
    Instant Healing

    • Thanks Steve –

      I agree. I think that in today’s society where everyone is totally surrounded by media actually thinking about what you’re seeing would be difficult at every turn. I just hope people don’t take everything they see to be the truth because that is what gets us in trouble.

      Dr. C

  2. Chocolate Cheerios

    Chocolate Cheerios in Canada is advertised as “All Natural Ingredients” on the box. But when you read the ingredients list it says “Artificial Flavors”.

    General Mills responded by saying the artificial flavors are proprietary and secret.

    Chocolate Cheeries, as well as regular cheerios contain three other ingredients worse than sugar and salt:

    Trisodium Phosphate – the primary ingredient in cement cleaner.

    Calcium carbonate -an essential ingredient in the microporous film used in babies’ diapers, used in blackboard chalk, in industrial sealants and paints and also household caulking.

    And Monoglycerides.

    Don’t feed your kid Chocolate Cheerios OR regular Cheerios.

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