America's kids are way too fat. Children's television, larded with spots hawking the likes of Cap'n Crunch and Happy Meals, is taking the obesity rap.
Like a kid caught with a hand in the cookie jar, networks and advertisers are red-faced with guilt, even as they beg viewers and Washington not to punish them. After all, they live off the fat of the land.
Nearly $8 billion was spent on TV marketing to kids last year, a walloping $3 billion on food ads alone, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Most pushed high-calorie, low-nutrition brands to tykes and teens, a demo with a big sweet tooth and little awareness of health risks.
But there's trouble in the land of plenty. To counter angry parents and pontificating pols, TV networks and their ad partners are scrambling to calm their critics.
For the past six months, kids net Nickelodeon and its advertisers have been designing new ad principles that call for promoting healthier products on the air and making them more available on grocery shelves. Already in the works are bottled waters featuring SpongeBob SquarePants and The Fairly Odd Parents characters.
"This is something we have to do," says Nick spokesman Dan Martinsen. Not from fear of a government crackdown, he insists, but because kids programmers are obligated to safeguard their impressionable and vulnerable audience.
Noble pronouncements aside, any programmer who dismisses threats from the feds risks retribution from Washington. "If the business community doesn't do what it should, this issue will really heat up," warns Dan Jaffe, executive vice president for the Association of National Advertisers.
Children's advocates blame TV's addiction to junk-food money for the obesity epidemic hitting school-age children and the dramatic increase in related illnesses. "There's been nothing like this since the effort to ban kids' ads in the 1970s," says Jaffe. "The industry really needs to focus on how serious this is."
Even the government's top doctor is flexing his muscle. U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona says television plays a role in children's poor eating habits and lack of exercise. "The average child spends four hours a day in front of a television. Can parents explain to their children who see tantalizing 'kid-food' products that they are loaded with sugar and fat?"
Isn't that a parent's job? muse broadcasters.
Undeterred, Carmona throws out more frightening stats. Today, 15% of children age 6 and older are overweight, more than double the proportion two decades ago. Worse, these kids are increasingly being diagnosed with ailments like Type 2 diabetes, a condition once largely limited to adults, which can cause heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness.
The problem is so bad, Carmona says, without big changes in kids' eating habits and exercise, the current generation of children might be America's first to suffer shorter life expectancy than their parents.
The Kaiser Foundation's new report links kids' obesity and TV watching. Kaiser backed no solutions, but its findings were followed up by the American Psychiatric Association's call for banning some types of advertising to kids.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) tried to make the ads a campaign issue by calling for an FTC investigation into junk-food marketing. At the FCC, children's advocates are asking the commission to ban interactive digital TV ad links during kids programming.
It's not just the heavy dose of TV ads but the kinds
of ads children see, complains Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "All the foods marketed to children are high in sugar and calories and low in nutrition. Companies are marketing very few healthy products."
Parents have a particularly tough time saying no because spots frequently feature beloved TV and movie characters like Scooby-Doo. "I certainly wish I could invite Harry Potter for dinner to encourage my daughter to eat her zucchini," Wootan says.
From her vantage point, the barrage of commercials for low-nutrition foods makes it nearly impossible for parents to do their part. "It's not that parents aren't interested in feeding their child well," she opines. "It's just too hard." She wants the federal government to set nutrition standards for the kinds of foods that can—and cannot—be marketed to children, ban stores from placing candy at a child's eye level, and outlaw manufacturers' payments to schools that sell junk food. "Self-regulation is not working," Wootan insists.
That kind of talk drives Jaffe nuts.
"The government can't take over the role of parents," he says. TV critics' "radical" proposals would create a government censorship board, he says. If food ads are cut back in a big way, "they will wipe out children's programming on free over-the-air programming."
Food marketers are doing their part to restrain creative directors whose pitches go too far and to promote healthier foods, he adds. Advertisers set up the Children's Advertising Review Unit to examine and urge changes to spots it deems inappropriate. Of a dozen food ads investigated by the group last year, 11 were modified or discontinued. But critics charge the program weeds out only the most egregious, such as a spot featuring a boy trying to trade his sandwich for Pringles chips.
How blame should be apportioned is an ongoing debate.
The FTC bailed on regulation decades ago, but big TV advertisers are already proactive. For instance, McDonald's announced it would stop selling waistline-busting Super Size fries and sodas. It has begun test marketing Happy Meals that allow parents to replace fries with apple slices. In some markets, McDonald's offers another kids favorite, Chicken McNuggets, with white meat instead of dark.
TV advertisers will need more than cosmetic changes. In an election year, the entrée is righteous indignation. And the government is eager to serve what it deems just desserts.