Food + TV = Bad Eating Habits?

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In the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity Report to the President, released in May 2010, it is clear that the challenge America faces in fighting childhood obesity is daunting. This national epidemic not only has life altering and threatening consequences but is also extremely costly. One in three children is obese and direct medical costs due to childhood obesity are estimated to be at $3 billion a year. The plea to the President is hopeful that because some contributing factors to childhood obesity are apparent, there can be regulations to possibly reverse these growing numbers.

One of the many factors contributing to childhood obesity is the increase in time spent watching television and surfing the internet. Not only does this decrease a child’s physical activity but children are bombarded with advertising for unhealthy lifestyle choices and food products. Marketers know that children and adolescents are an important demographic to advertise to because they will be the future adult consumers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimated that in 2006 more than $1.6 billion was spent to promote food and beverage products to children and adolescents. One popular marketing technique used in advertising is the use of characters from popular television programming. In a research study conducted by Sesame Workshop in 2005, it is shown that the use of popular characters has a strong influence on the food choices little ones will make regardless of it being healthy.

In response to a growing concern by the public, the Council of Better Business Bureaus created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). The initiative is intended to regulate food and beverage advertising. One of the conditions set by the CFBAI for companies is that 50% of their advertising must promote healthier lifestyle choices. And what about those fuzzy and adorable characters that our youngsters follow so much? If they are not promoting “healthier-for-you” products that meet the criteria set by the CFBAI, their air time must be reduced. Though a step in the right direction, the efforts of the CFBAI have been criticized for failing to apply to all forms of advertising, including displays near check-out counters. In 2009, Children Now commissioned a study to analyze the efficiency of the CFBAI and also found that the use of popular characters in advertisements for unhealthy products had nearly doubled.

Clearly, more work is needed and stronger standards must be set. Congress formed the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) in 2009. This group developed tentative standards in December of 2009 and is working on publishing set standards in the Federal Register, the official daily publication of proposed new rules and regulations, in the near future. Federal government guidance and regulation will be necessary to turn the corner in the fight against childhood obesity. Other recommendations by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity include:

  • Extending the self-regulatory initiative to cover all forms of marketing including point of purchase displays
  • Limit the use of popular characters to products that are truly healthy
  • Both food and media industries should adopt a uniform set of standards for marketing to children

Additional comments by Kathy de Meij, Director of Marketing, The Children’s Aid Society: “While we’re pleased there’s movement to protect our children’s health, the tightening of regulations should only be the first step. The Task Force should then pursue a total ban on junk food advertising to children (similar to the ban on advertising tobacco products). The ban should define junk foods in a very rigid manner to include all foods high in sugar, fat and salt, including products such as high-sugar cereals that falsely market themselves as healthy by including synthetic vitamins. We also need a comprehensive national outreach program that moves public opinion and children’s behavior permanently to healthy eating for long term health, similar to the efforts undertaken to use seat belts for safety. “