Childhood Obesity

Vicky Rideout
Kaiser Family Foundation
Wednesday, May 21, 2008 12:00 PM

The Kaiser Family Foundation's Vicky Rideout was online May 21 at noon ET to discuss how food advertising and marketing contribute to childhood obesity.

A transcript follows.

Rideout is a vice president and director of the program for the study of entertainment media and health at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.


Vicky Rideout: Hi everybody. I've enjoyed reading the Post's series about childhood obesity - I say "enjoyed," but it's certainly been disturbing as well. Thinking about the impact on children's health, especially 10 or 15 years down the road, is absolutely heartbreaking.

I'm looking forward to having a conversation about the role that changes in food advertising might be able to play in helping to address this problem.


Santa Cruz, Calif.: Ms. Rideout -- as a recent gastric bypass patient, I can relate to the challenges of obesity, although I was not obese as a child. However, even I am enthralled by the Lucky Charms Leprechaun and it's colorful marshmallows. As ultimately most of the money spent on the food a child eats is spent by the parent or caregiver of that child; I'd like to know what impact this type of marketing has on the parents and care-givers of obese children. Are these companies gearing their marketing to parents as well to influence them to buy these things for their kids?

Vicky Rideout: You probably grew up watching Lucky Charms commercials on TV, like I did. Parents obviously have a huge role to play, in deciding what foods to bring into the home. Some parents don't have very healthy eating habits themselves. Others resist the "nag factor" some of the time, but give in other times. But you'd be surprised at how much money kids have to spend themselves - especially "tweens" and teens. Not necessarily on cereals, but on snacks and so on. As food companies cut back on their advertising to kids, it'll be interesting to see if there is an increase in advertising to parents.


Falls Church, Va.: What's your thought on school vending machines, that have sweet soft drinks and candy bars, where the vending company contributes to school funds/boosters? I don't believe healthy snacks would make as much money.

Vicky Rideout: With so many schools struggling for funding, this is a really tough issue for them. I think the key in all of this is for food companies to create fun, tasty, appealing foods that are also healthy. Obviously, it's easier to make a food that appeals to kids if you can put a ton of sugar in it, and make it glow in the dark and bounce off walls. But for companies to be profitable going forward, they are going to have to come up with foods kids want to eat that are good for them too. Then they could fill the vending machines with those, and everyone would make money.


Rockville, Md.: Hi Vicky,

I have recently fought the battle of the bulge (45 pounds lighter since 2002). I did this by exercise and watching my fat and sugar intake. I have relatives who "appease" their kids by feeding them whatever they want -- I recently ate with some friends and while the adults ate what was served -- the kids (all picky eaters) were fed five different meals all high in cholesterol and fat. How do you draw the line on feeding kids something (if its not healthy) or drawing the line and having the kids not eat (because they don't like what is being served?).

Vicky Rideout: Congratulations on your weight loss. You're right, it seems as though there is a lot of work to be done helping parents understand how kids develop their tastes for certain foods, and how best to cultivate healthy eating habits mong kids. Here in San Francisco, the 3 year-old in my life goes to a preschool where they check kids lunch bags to make sure the parents aren't sending heavily sugared foods to school with the kids. At first that seemed extreme - but it helped educate us about things like very sugary yogurts for kids. And I know it helps them keep things in control at the day care center! Plus, this child's taste buds are much more accepting of foods that aren't heavily sugared.


Chicago IL: What does it say about where our culture has gone that we're discussing all these complex solutions for what is a very straightforward problem -- kids eating more than their activity levels require? Eat better food, get more active, and the problem is solved. Why are so many people baffled by this?

Vicky Rideout: It may be simple, but it's not easy. A lot of it comes down to time, and money. Money for physical fitness at schools, for example. And the money that is made by selling foods to kids. There is a lot at stake for food companies. And there is a lack of money for things like public education campaigns to help kids understand nutrition or to get them up off the couch.


Reston, VA: While I appreciate the efforts to reduce junk food advertisement to children, I'm equally appalled at the night time advertisements for getting dinner to go at restaurants.

The idea of getting a take out dinner every night is horrifying to me! You're setting kids up to fail if their parents don't commit to healthy eating, too.

Prep cooking on the weekends is a very effective way of getting some meals ready to heat and serve, that are way more nutritious than anything you'll get at a restaurant!

Vicky Rideout: There has definitely been a big decrease in home-cooked meals. (Another way "time" affects this problem; no one has time to cook!) Home cooked meals are usually healthier, as you say. Some health advocates have been working to get nutrition information on restaurant foods, which might help a bit.


Bloomington, Indiana: I have two questions:

First, we know there is a lot of food advertising aimed at children and adolescents. What role do you think food ads play in shaping the foods kids eat compared to, for example, the kinds of foods available and displayed in convenience stores, supermarkets, and even schools?

Second, do you think it's possible to get children and adolescents to think more carefully about the foods they eat? For example, if food advertisers spend more time focusing on the nutritional value of their products instead of how great they taste or how much fun they are to eat, would nutritional value become more important when kids pick foods?

Vicky Rideout: It's hard to tease out how much children's food choices are influenced by TV ads vs. product packaging vs. movie tie-ins, and so on. Obviously the companies that market to kids think these are all important in increasing sales. But these companies definitely spend a lot more on in-store marketing and promotions than they do on TV ads, so that may tell us something.

I think educating kids about nutrition is valuable, but I don't know if you can ever successfully market foods to them on that basis alone - I think "fun" is always going to have to be a big part of the equation, and taste will always be key. But some companies have started advertising their foods on the basis of how much energy they'll give you to go out and do the fun things kids like to do, like play sports, and - if the foods really are nutritious - that's a great message.


Tucson, AZ: Companies that sell food to kids have made lots of claims that they would stop advertising junk food and only promote healthy foods to kids -- but I haven't seen any ads for carrots or rice cakes yet. Are the companies really cutting back on junk food ads, or is this just a smoke- screen?

Vicky Rideout: Each company sets it's own nutritional standards. So a cereal company isn't likely to stop advertising cereals - they're probably going to advertise a lower sugar cereal instead, or maybe reformulate another of their cereals so it meets their new standards. I'm guessing that the carrot industry just doesn't have the funds to launch a big TV advertising campaign (although there are some efforts to package carrots in a more appealing way to kids). But the food companies have made specific commitments about how they're going to change their ads to kids, and if there is funding for research to monitor the advertising landscape, we'll be able to see in a year or so whether there has been a noticeable change.


Rockville, Md.: Hello,

I would assume that the major packaged food manufacturers lobby Congress to allow people on food stamps to continue purchasing their products. I ask because there seems to be a direct link between obese children whose parents are on welfare and do not have access to healthier foods. If the parents could purchase the less healthy options, I would assume this is a good effect. Is there any movement to scale down the allowable packaged food list?

Thank you.

Vicky Rideout: I'm not aware of whether there are any proposals to limit the types of foods you can buy with food stamps to healthier options. But there are definitely efforts to try to increase the availability of healthier foods in lower income communities. This has been a long-term problem - trying to make things like fresh fruits and vegetables easily available. The thinking is that a lot of people would choose better foods if they had the option. The other problem is price - when you've got "dollar meals" easily available, that fill you up and satisfy, it's tough to choose a piece of fruit that probably costs close to the same.


Washington, D.C.: Are there any positive trends or examples to look to in media targeted towards children, or should media providing health and fitness advice focus on parents?

Vicky Rideout: The first positive trend is that food companies have agreed to change the types of foods they advertise to the youngest kids. Advocates don't think these changes go far enough, but it's a start. Another change is that media companies are using some of their shows to promote healthy lifestyles to kids. But when we last studied this issue, we found that the typical 8 year old sees more than 20 food ads a day (for chips, candy, sodas, and so on), compared to just one PSA on fitness or nutrition every two or three days! So there's definitely still an imbalance.


Horsham, Pa.: I have a couple of questions. Does your research differentiate between fast food restaurant advertising and foods you'd find in the grocery store? I feel like fast food chains are so much more to blame for and also feel like I've seen some improvement in foods like cereals.

Do you think that there should be restrictions on targeting children in unhealthy food advertising, much like the cigarette industry had imposed on them? If so, what are the guidelines you would recommend for determining whether a food is unhealthy.

Vicky Rideout: Greetings Horsham. We found that about 10% of food ads that target kids are for fast foods, 10% are for sodas (the Post reported a huge increase in soda consumption among children over the past 10 years), 28% for sugary cereals, and 34% for candy and snacks like chips.

It's true that policymakers decided that the first amendment did allow them to limit cigarette advertising to kids. But so far, they haven't shown too much interest in imposing restrictions on food advertisers - although the Institute of Medicine did propose that Congress regulate advertisers if the advertisers don't take sufficient steps temselves.


Bloomington, Ind.: I'd like to follow-up on a question asked by a person in Tucson. If carrot companies -- actually, companies for so many healthy foods -- don't have the money to advertise, how can the media reach kids and their parents with healthy food messages? I don't think we're going to have product placements for healthy foods. Do you think PSAs have a chance here?

Vicky Rideout: Children's shows could decide to do product placements for healthy foods, as a public service. And the government could fund public education campaigns that feature healthy foods. But as mentioned above, right now kids aren't seeing many PSAs on fitness or nutrition (or at least, the last time we studied it they weren't. It would be good to be able to look at this again.)


Arlington, Va. : What about the sheer availability of food today? Does that contribute as well? My friends and I were discussing recently all the places that now offer food that did not do so in the past: bookstores (Barnes & Noble cafes); hardware stores (Home Depot checkout lines); gas stations (convenience stores); even office supply stores like Office Depot offer pretzels, chips, candy etc.

Vicky Rideout: Good point. I was shopping at Macy's the other day, and was tempted by a giant dark chocolate bar at the cashier stand in the women's clothing section - which seemed like an odd place to be selling food. Luckily, having just been in trying on clothes, I was motivated enough to resist! I think the key for kids is probably the schools, given how much time they spend there. The advent of vending machines in school hallways and cafeterias with sodas, chips and candy is probably really hard to resist.


Silver Spring, MD: I forget which parenting book it was (Sears?) but I read that parents usually start too late to deal with food, driving and sex. Kids learn their attitudes about driving when they are in the carseat and by age 16 their thinking is set. The "conversation" about sex begins with accurate words and age-appropriate knowledge before first grade.

Food begins by watching their parents before the first spoonful ever goes in. Do you eat fast food, eat in the car, snack through the day, drink packaged drinks (even "diet" drinks) and rarely eat dinner together at the table? As usual, it is the parents who struggle the most with "discipline."

We need to do all the other things but I encourage other parents to start now and include yourself in the plan.

Vicky Rideout: Good point. And research has shown you have to give kids new foods a number of times (when they're small) before they get accustomed to them.


Riverside, Calif.:

What organizations or agencies do you feel are positioned to have the most impact on changing food marketing practices? Why? Are there particular individuals you think are especially effective?

Vicky Rideout: The food companies themselves are the best positioned. Congress of course has the power to regulate, or to empower the Federal Trade Commission. The FCC limits the number of ads on children's television, and could impose more limits. The Children's Advertising Review Unit is a voluntary association of advertisers and ad agencies - they could choose to limit certain practices such as how kids are marketed to online - for example, is it fair to use viral marketing to kids under 13? Is it fair to use "push" marketing to them (where kids join a club and companies send them email alerts with new products or flavors or games on their websites).


Leesburg, VA: Yes, we can reduce ads for unhealthy foods aimed at kids, and we can serve healthier foods at schools, and all the rest... but I have yet to read one thing in this series of articles about ending the constant barrage of teasing and name-calling the heavy kids are tormented by.

The constant teasing is another reason heavy kids are tempted to stay inside, play video games or use the PC, and avoid exercise. What's the point of walking around the neighborhood only to get pointed at and yelled at?

How about some anti-bullying ads, along with pro-fruit and pro-exercise ads? The heavy kids aren't the only ones who need education!

Vicky Rideout: Good idea. Kids who spend the most time with media tend to be more overweight, not just because of being exposed to more food advertising, but also because of spending so much time being sedentary (and snacking while watching). And unhappy kids do tend to spend more time in front of the tube.


Washington, D.C.: What role have branded characters been playing in marketing foods to children? Is there any evidence that these characters influence children's food selections? Is there any evidence that marketers can use branded characters to get children to make healthy food selections?

Vicky Rideout: That's been a really big issue, as any parent can tell you. There has been an explosion in the use of children's favorite TV and movie characters in "tie-ins" to foods. Over the past year or two, there have been some examples of character tie-ins with healthier products, like carrots. We have to wait to see the marketing data to see how well it's working (companies don't always want to make that information public). I did see one (small, unpublished) study where kids were offered a choice between a sugary treat or brocolli, with a Sesame Street character "endorsing" the broccoli - and it was pretty amazing how many chose the broccoli!


Washington DC: Hi Vicky,

Thank you for taking time to do this chat!

You (that's the general "you") put your money and your attention on what matters most to you.

If parents and the US government are committed to raising healthy, slim kids, then the tasks are there, and can be accomplished. No one said it would be easy, and it has to start at home. Failing that, a mandatory life skills class at school that would incorporate nutrition would be a good start (much as kids need help balancing checkbooks, avoiding credit card debt, etc).

Just some thoughts....

Vicky Rideout: Thanks for sharing your ideas. As the Post pointed out earlier this week, the government did have a pretty substantial public education campaign aimed at "tweens," to try to get them up and moving. The campaign (it was called VERB) was showing some signs of success. But it was eliminated from the president's budget. Policymakers may choose to go back to something like that in the years ahead.


San Francisco: Capitalistic economic systems generally revere short term profitability and minimal regulation. Securing a responsible balance between corporate economic viability and public welfare is an on-going struggle, usually between unequally funded interests. Are there other industrialized countries with successful models for controlling food marketing and advertising to children?

Vicky Rideout: Policymakers in this country are definitely reluctant to step in and regulate the types of foods that can be advertised to kids - not just because of corporate profits, but also because of first amendment issues. Great Britain recently enacted some very tough rules, banning TV ads for less nutritious foods in TV shows that are either aimed specifically at kids, or that have a large number of kids in the audience. It will be interesting to see how the food industry responds and what impact the new policy has on children's diets. (It's interesting to learn that a lot of food companies already make products with different nutritional standards for different countries - for example, making the same cereal, but the one sold in the U.S. has more sugar that the one sold elsewhere.)


Washington, D.C.: I'm confused as to why parents are so worried about their children not eating. What happened to serving one meal and if the children don't want to eat it they can wait until the next meal. Missing a meal never killed or even permanently damaged anyone that I know. If children are hungry and know they can't bargain for their favorite foods, they will learn to eat what is put in front of them and over time will learn to like a wider variety of foods. Besides, who are these parents with so much extra time that they can make several different meals every time the family sits down to eat?

Vicky Rideout: As someone suggested earlier, starting to introduce kids to new foods when they're very little is important too - it gets their taste buds used to healthy options.


Seattle: How do our school meals and school-based food programs compare globally? What are other countries doing to encourage healthy habits in children via schools or are their cultures sufficient to instill good habits without extra effort?

Vicky Rideout: The U.S. certainly isn't the only country with a childhood obesity problem. I don't know what policies are like in schools in other countries. But some countries have taken steps to reduce food advertising to kids on TV. Great Britain, for example, has set nutritional standards for foods that can be advertised to kids.


Vicky Rideout: Thanks everybody, I enjoyed the conversation. Looks like our time is up.


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