Children’s diet quality has declined to shocking levels, directly fueling the obesity epidemic. There are, of course, many forces affecting the eating habits of children today, such as the widespread availability of junk food, an under-funded school lunch program, and busy, stressed families. However, TV advertising to children has undoubtedly played a major role. Saturday morning children’s shows have seemingly become little more than a continuous food commercial, with beloved, iconic cartoon figures like SpongeBob peddling junk foods during programming as well as ads.
In response to the threat of governmental regulation and legal action, major food companies like Kellogg, General Mills, ConAgra and PepsiCo banded together in 2006 to create a voluntary advertising code of conduct. Called the “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative,” this policy aimed to “change the landscape of child-directed advertising” by encouraging “Better-for-You” foods.
After three years of operation, has this voluntary program worked? Are food ads aimed at children now promoting healthful products? The results of a study just released by the advocacy group Children Now suggest not.
The report systematically evaluated ads on children’s programming in 2005, 2007 and 2009. They found that, despite perfect compliance among participating companies, the quality of advertised foods remained atrocious. Indeed, it would require 10 hours of viewing children’s TV shows to see one ad for a healthy product. During that time, a child would see 55 ads for products with the lowest nutritional quality, such as Lucky Charms, Froot Loops and Fruity Pebbles breakfast cereals. So it would seem that the “Better-for-You” program isn’t actually Good for You, especially if you’re a kid.
As I’ve previously argued, these voluntary industry programs better serve the interests of private profit than public health. The food industry cannot fairly regulate advertising to children any more than the wolf can guard the henhouse.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have considered advertising to young children inherently unethical, because they lack the intellectual and psychological maturity to understand that the purpose of advertisement is to manipulate behavior.
So it’s time to take back control of the airwaves aimed at our children. It’s time to ban ALL advertising to young children, starting with food ads.