TV Ads Entice Kids To Overeat, Study Finds

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Food and beverage companies are using television ads to entice children into eating massive amounts of unhealthful food, leading to a sharp increase in childhood obesity and diabetes, a national science advisory panel said yesterday.

The Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies, called on food and beverage manufacturers and restaurants to make more healthful products and shift their advertising emphasis to promote them. If the companies do not do so within two years, Congress should mandate changes, especially for broadcast and cable television ads, the institute said.

"There is strong evidence that exposure to television advertising is associated with" obesity, the government-chartered institute said in a congressionally requested report to determine the effects of food advertising on children's health. The report said most of the food and beverage products promoted to children are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat and low in nutrients.

Many are promoted with popular cartoon characters. There are, for example, SpongeBob SquarePants cereal, Pop-Tarts, cookies and candy and Scooby-Doo fruit snacks and crackers. The institute said such characters should be used to promote only products that support healthful diets.

The institute also called on Congress to enhance nutritional standards and create incentives, including awards and tax breaks, to encourage companies to develop and promote healthful products for children and adolescents. Many in the food industry as well as its critics called the report a milestone in the growing national debate over childhood obesity, which has more than tripled in the past 40 years.

Coming at a time when parents are pressing schools to get rid of sugary sodas and junk food and as some major food firms rush to launch new, better-for-you products, Advertising Age said the report could become "a watershed on the scale of the 1964 surgeon general's report on tobacco."

The advertising industry was sharply critical of the report's recommendations.

"Government stepping in and saying what should be in messages on TV is a very radical proposal" and is unconstitutional, said Daniel L. Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. "If you do it for food, there's no reason it can't be done for other controversial product categories. People are already trying to restrict the advertising for prescription drugs."

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents major foodmakers, said it was disappointed that the report did not cite many of the changes food companies have made in the past year.

McDonald's, for example, added milk and apples to children's meals. PepsiCo Inc. has mandated that half of its revenue from new products come from healthful products. Kraft Foods Inc. announced this year that it would stop advertising its less nutritious products on television and radio and in magazines aimed at children under 12. Many food companies have sponsored fitness campaigns and curricula at schools and youth clubs.

"Our companies have learned that healthy foods make healthy profits," said Richard Martin, spokesman for the grocery manufacturers.

In releasing the report yesterday, the head of the committee that wrote it said food companies need to be concerned about the health and well-being of children as well as their profits. That "requires an all-hands on deck effort," said J. Michael McGinnis, senior scholar at the Institute of Medicine.

The report was written by a committee of 16 with varied backgrounds: nutritionists, advertising and marketing experts, child and adolescent development professionals, and entertainment executives. Panel members, in interviews, said they were surprised they were able to agree on their strong findings, given that wide divergence of backgrounds.

The institute found that children and other young people spend $200 billion a year. In 2004, children ages 2 to 15 influenced about $500 billion worth of purchases a year, compared with $295 billion in 1993. Of the things that children buy -- or have their parents buy for them -- food and beverages, especially candy, carbonated soft drinks and salty snacks, are the top categories.

The number of new food products aimed at children is growing at a far faster rate than new food products in general, and for the most part, new children's products were high in total calories, sugar or fat, the report found.

In 2004, marketers spent an estimated $10 billion to market products to children, the report said. But, it said, only 20 percent of that was for traditional TV, radio, print and billboard marketing. Marketing dollars are instead going to product placement, in-school marketing, special-event marketing and licensing popular characters. Manufacturers also are turning to Internet marketing, mobile phone ads, product placement in movies and video games, and viral marketing to create a buzz about their goods.

Most of the 120 studies that the committee used to support its findings dealt with TV advertising. As a result, the report called for more research on the impact of new marketing methods. It said a government agency should monitor such marketing activities in the next two years and report to Congress on additional actions that may be necessary to curb childhood obesity.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who pushed Congress to approve $1 million for the institute's study, said, "This landmark study comes as no surprise to me, and it will come at no surprise to the junk food industry." He said the industry does not spend billions of dollars a year "marketing junk food to kids in order to waste money." They do it "because it works brilliantly."

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