Americ has a problem. Kids are getting fat. Dangerously fat. The U.S. Surgeon General says more than 15% of children between 6 and 19 are overweight. And advertisers are getting slammed for promoting bad habits. In March, separate studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the American Psychological Association (APA) laid the blame on TV spots.
And the industry responded.
Last month, Pringles pulled spots in which four teens munch from a six-serving can of chips. After an industry-funded watchdog complained it encouraged overeating, its run was canceled.
In December, Kentucky Fried Chicken withdrew a spot from Cartoon Network touting its chicken-breast meal as a healthier alternative to Burger King's Whopper. Critics pointed out that KFC's offering had more cholesterol and sodium than a Whopper.
In fact, the number of TV food spots has actually declined
during the years obesity increased by 15% among eighth-graders. But the scrutiny remains. The APA bears much of the responsibility for the attack. It is calling for sharp federal restrictions, including TV spots aimed at kids younger than 8.
The pressure is mounting—and the industry is fighting back. Media execs agree they must step up efforts to promote healthy eating. But they, and some government officials, object to holding commercials responsible for fat children. Yes, kids are spending more time slouched in front of screens. But increasingly, they note, those screens aren't TVs. Instead, young people are turning to computers, DVD players, and game players that don't run commercials.
"The case for saying advertising is the cause of increasing obesity in children is pretty weak," Todd Zywicki, director of policy planning for the Federal Trade Commission, told a Cato Institute panel last week. Zywicki's comments echo sentiments of FTC Chairman Tim Muris, who recently said banning food ads to children would be ineffective, as well as illegal.
Zywicki added there's little evidence to link obesity to advertising.
For starters, countries like Sweden and Canada are showing hikes in childhood obesity, despite tight restrictions. Even countries with virtually no marketing to kids, such as Egypt, are seeing rises in obesity. The real culprit, he says, is the falling cost of food and the global shift to work that's less taxing and less calorie-burning.
Still, industry critics are pushing new legislation.
In Congress, lawmakers want to earmark $90 million for the National Institutes of Health to study the effect of media exposure on kids. The APA and other advocates have called for stricter time limits on ads during children's shows than those ordered by the FCC. Critics want networks to air public-service announcements (PSAs) promoting sound eating habits in proportion to the number of food spots. Finally, they want to ban DTV links to food and toy marketers' Web sites.
Chatter about restrictions has marketers and networks nervous. Food ads keep kids programming on the air, says Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. "A ban would damage children's TV."
Nickelodeon and its kid networks are taking matters into their own hands, allocating 10% of their programming day to healthy-eating themes and similarly focused PSAs.
Industry efforts don't placate Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "Stressed-out" two-income couples can't monitor everything their kids see or continually resist persistent demands for food, he says. "I don't think it's fair to say it's just parents' responsibility."
Maybe not, but legislation is self-defeating, says Marva Smalls, Nickelodeon's executive vice president. It will discourage networks from rolling out PSAs, which are meant to help kids make smart choices. "Kids will eat junk food," says Smalls, "long after the ads are history."