Beware of Saturday Morning Cartoons: There is a strong link between marketing junk to our kids and childhood obesity
by Jordan Rubin
The influence of media is nothing new, and most of us could not imagine life without today’s technology. There’s a down side, though, and perhaps the greatest negative impact is that the media is used to market unhealthy foods, drinks, and lifestyles to our kids. Case in point: 70 percent of polled six-to-eight-year-olds who watch a lot of television believe that fast foods are more nutritious than healthy, home-cooked foods.
It’s no wonder kids think that way. Studies show that ads targeted to kids 12 and under lead them to request and consume high-calorie, low-nutrient products such as soft drinks, sweets, salty snacks, and fast food—adding up to more than one-third of their daily calories. Our kids are listening, watching, and believing the ads—and getting fat in the process. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the proportion of overweight children ages 6-11 has more than doubled, and the rate for adolescents has tripled since 1980. This development often sets them up for a lifetime of being overweight since around 80 percent of overweight adolescents become obese adults.
Looking back, it all began in the 1960s when marketers targeted children as a separate demographic category, prompting advertisers to move on this lucrative new market. In the 1970s, children were viewing an average of 20,000 TV commercials a year. By the late 1970s, research indicated that children could not distinguish between television programs and commercials, and they had little to no understanding of ads’ persuasive intentions—making them especially vulnerable to ads’ claims and appeals. In 1978, the Federal Trade Commission attempted to ban TV commercials aimed at youngsters—to no avail.
When cable channels exploded in the 1990s, opportunities to advertise directly to children expanded as well. Estimates now indicate that children spend an average of five and one-half hours a day using media (television, the Internet, radio, etc.) and see or hear an average of over 40,000 TV commercials a year.
Marketing junk to kids has worked. In 1997 alone, kids aged 7-12 spent $2.3 billion (and teenagers spent a whopping $58 billion) of discretionary money on snacks and beverages—mostly unhealthy, high-fat, high-sugar ones. The sad truth is that advertising likely has more influence on what kids eat and drink than parents or schools do.
Despite attempts at limiting or disallowing advertisements directly to children, the trend of marketing junk to kids has gained momentum as the modes of marketing have diversified and intensified. One advertising executive summed up their tactics in this manner: “You’ve got to reach kids throughout the day—in school, as they’re shopping in the mall . . . or at the movies. You’ve got to become part of the fabric of their lives.”
That’s exactly what has happened. Advertising has infiltrated our kids’ lives even in supposedly “controlled” environments: at home (through television, the Internet, video games, etc.); at the movies (highlighting unhealthy branded foods in so-called “product placements”); at school (via piped-in advertising through programs such as Channel One, field trips, and others); and even on the way to school (via advertising on the outside and inside of buses, plus listening to BusRadio), directly impacting what our kids eat, drink, do and how much weight they gain.
Not surprisingly, there are direct correlations between the amount of time a child spends in front of screen media and the risk and degree of obesity. For every hour a child watches TV or plays video games, the risk of obesity can double. Watching TV and playing video games also slows down metabolism—burning fewer calories than reading does and almost as few as sleeping does.
Companies also pay a lot of money to place their products in movies. Branded foods (mostly soda, followed by candy, chips, and pretzels) average about one to two in a typical movie. And this is only in the movie itself; it does not include all the junk food advertisements prior to the start of the featured flick.
Additionally, many school districts struggle to make ends meet and some have come up with a creative way to do so—advertising on school buses. While not all ads are for sugary soft drinks, fast food, or unhealthy snacks, some are, and the buses provide a captive audience to influence our kids’ eating and lifestyle habits.
So what can be done? We need to talk to our kids and tell them (and model for them) what healthy eating and living is—and why. If we don’t get to our kids first, the marketers and advertisers sure won’t mind telling them what to buy, eat, and do.