The fallacy of marketing ‘healthy’ food to youths

The first lady’s Let's Move program focuses on kid-friendly ad campaigns — and in doing so, misses the point

February 14, 2014 7:30AM ET
First lady Michelle Obama, with “Sesame Street” characters Elmo and Rosita, announcing a Let’s Move initiative to promote fresh fruit and vegetables for children, at the White House in Washington in October 2013.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Michelle Obama is probably the most popular first lady in recent memory, with approval ratings embarrassingly higher than her husband’s, at least in 2012. She is the picture of health, speaks openly about the challenges of raising two daughters and feeding them right and uses her platform to call attention to the country’s childhood obesity crisis through her Let’s Move program.

And yet, with all this going for her, even she cannot make a serious dent in the problem of how food and media corporations are targeting children with junk-food advertising. So instead, she has turned to the easier task of getting a few corporations to pledge to market so-called healthy food to children. First came the announcement with Disney in 2012 that food advertised on its radio and TV channels would have to meet Disney’s nutrition guidelines, and then last fall a deal with Sesame Workshop, the producer of the children’s television show “Sesame Street,” to license its characters to help the Produce Marketing Association promote fruits and vegetables to children. Just last month came the latest pledge, from Subway, which will offer a new kids’ menu and stress healthier eating through an expansive child- and family-focused marketing campaign.

These large-scale commitments may sound great, but here’s the rub: Public-health advocates haven’t been asking for more food marketing to children. Rather, for years — even decades — the aim has been to get the marketing to stop.

Obama is well aware that junk-food marketing to kids is at the heart of the childhood obesity problem. At the inception of the Let’s Move program in 2010, she sternly lectured the junk-food industry’s trade group, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, “not just to tweak around the edges.” In September, at a gathering at the White House, she had a surprisingly blunt message to food marketers:

You all know that our kids are like little sponges. They absorb whatever is around them. But they don’t yet have the ability to question and analyze what they’re told. Instead, they believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it’s on TV. And when the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create. And that’s where the problem comes in.

She even called on the industry “to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families.” Well said.

Despite her best efforts, however, curbing junk-food marketing to children is not something the first lady can fix. She is simply in the wrong wing of the White House. Meanwhile, the West Wing has shown little willingness to stand up to the junk-food industry. An effort by four federal agencies to enact better nutrition standards for how food is marketed to children — which, even if passed, would have been only voluntary and therefore unenforceable — was scuttled in 2011 by corporate lobbyists. Barack Obama’s administration has been silent on the matter ever since, apparently content to let the first lady host happy press conferences with Elmo and Rosita from “Sesame Street.” 

Children do not need more marketing to get them to eat well; they just need the junk-food peddlers to stop undermining parents.

While Let’s Move grabs headlines, the public discourse has shifted away from the much more important policy discussion at stake: the food industry’s failed attempt to self-regulate. Ignoring food advocates’ repeated calls for increased accountability, fast-food leaders, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, routinely violate pledges of responsible marketing to children, as do cereal giants, such as General Mills. Even in the school environment, where Michelle Obama’s efforts have had some positive impact (e.g., improvements to meal guidelines), junk-food marketing remains a significant problem, as recent research has shown, further demonstrating the weakness (PDF) of self-regulatory pledges from industry. It is not enough to have better nutrition guidelines on school meals when corporations are deliberately targeting schoolchildren in order to build brand loyalty for life. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois, most students, from elementary to high schools, are “exposed to commercialism aimed at obtaining food or beverage sales or developing brand recognition and loyalty for future sales.”

Making false promises about marketing to children may even have legal implications. In most states as well as under federal law, it is illegal to engage in false or deceptive advertising, which can include when a corporation reneges on a voluntary pledge to behave responsibly.

A focus on healthy-food marketing also distracts us from facing what is fundamentally wrong about corporations targeting children for profit-making. As Susan Linn, the author of “Consumer Kids,” and I argued in June, any type of marketing to kids is inherently deceptive because children lack the cognitive capacity to understand how marketing works, making the practice potentially illegal and, at the least, unethical.

Furthering this concern, Josh Golin, associate director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, tells me that from a commercialization standpoint, the “Sesame Street” approach to using characters to market fresh produce is a “terrible idea.” He notes that “the produce aisle was literally the only place in a grocery store where children weren't being targeted — and where parents could get a respite from the nagging that marketers covet in every other aisle.” He also says that Let’s Move has the wrong priorities. “If you got rid of junk-food marketing and also did vegetable marketing, you’d have a chance. But slapping Elmo on some bananas is not going to compete with sugary, salty, highly processed food with another character on a way-cooler package with a big TV campaign and an advergame to support it.” (Advergames are games on websites, such as HappyMeal.com, aimed at getting kids to play online while immersed in an advertising environment, where they are especially susceptible.)

Similarly, Let’s Move’s partnership with Subway is unlikely to prove effective and may even do more harm than good. The largest fast-food company (in terms of outlets) is already known for falsely creating a healthy halo — giving the impression of health to cover up the junk. Most of Subway’s offerings are meat-heavy and overly processed. (Its new Fritos Chicken Enchilada Melt is just one example.) A recent petition asked Subway to remove from its bread a chemical called azodicarbonamide, which is also used in plastics. The company says it will, but details are sketchy.

Since Subway wasn’t marketing to children before, few advocates in public health were complaining about it. But now, as the White House announcement notes, the three-year deal represents Subway’s “largest kid-targeted marketing effort to date," including a promise to “deliver $41 million in media value.”

Meanwhile, food and media corporations, including McDonald’s, General Mills and Nickelodeon (the leading channel where marketers target children), are engaging in business as usual, exploiting children with harmful and deceptive messages about what they should eat. Children do not need more marketing to get them to eat well; they just need the junk-food peddlers to stop undermining parents.

No one in Washington is even talking about these companies’ tactics. Instead, Let’s Move is engaging in quasi-public-policy-making without the usual democratic checks and balances, such as getting input from multiple stakeholders — or the public, for that matter. But the blame for that lies less with the first lady and more with the president and a hopeless Congress for placing corporate interests above children’s health. Is our federal government so broken that a press conference with the Muppets is the best we can hope for? 

Michele Simon is a public health lawyer, the president of Eat Drink Politics, the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and an attorney with Foscolo and Handel, the food law firm.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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