A Growing Problem


Kids are too fat—and so are their parents. And both are no doubt influenced greatly by television commercials. If that's not true, 50 years of marketing and many billions of dollars have been wildly misdirected.

But to blame the TV industry or advertisers for creating an overweight nation suggests that adults have no nutritional or common sense and that they are incapable of teaching—or even ordering—their children to be wise about what they eat.

Likewise, to suggest food manufacturers have no responsibility to closely monitor how and what they peddle toward kids is absolute balderdash.

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission held a two-day seminar to explore the problem of fat kids. Obesity among children and teenagers has more than doubled over the past 30 years, says the government-backed Institute of Medicine. That same organization has concluded TV advertising can “especially” affect what kids decide to eat. It urged the industry to develop better guidelines for advertising and placement, which, thankfully, it appears, is about to happen.

We're all for that, because there is ample evidence that some food producers and networks may be bending principles for a fast, fat buck. For example, Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University who addressed the FTC panel, described an ad campaign that drives kids to a Web site where they can play the “burping game” by drinking sugary Capri Sun “as quickly as possible and using special recorder devices on Capri Sun packages to record their 'weird and wonderful sounds.'” She went on to list a series of clever and viral “adver-game' marketing efforts by such well known brands as Nickelodeon, Procter & Gamble, McDonald's, Kellogg Co. and a British offshoot of Fox television. She documented games that use the Internet or cellphones to get kids to consume a lot of junk food.

Sensing the bad publicity, health-related media initiatives were flying over the PR Newswire last week. The Ad Council announced it was helping to form a government/industry coalition to market healthy lifestyles. Viacom's Nickelodeon signed a deal to put its cartoon character SpongeBob on bags of spinach and Dora the Explorer on oranges and carrots. The Grocery Manufacturers of America was planning to unveil new, tougher guidelines and responsibilities for the industry's Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a “self-policing” arm of the Better Business Bureau that heretofore must have been an industry inside joke.

FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said that last week's workshop wouldn't lead to new government rules but made it clear CARU had better straighten up. That is our attitude, too, because, bottom line, government intrusion limits free speech.

But we'd add the significant caveat: Our patience is growing thin as our children are growing fat. We don't in the least absolve parents and schools from responsibility for teaching children about nutrition, but if television advertising really works, it ought to be seen as a consumer helper, not a threat. It is tough for moms and dads to create a cleverer message than the best-paid minds on Madison Avenue.