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Kids in Their Sights

Hollie Shaw
National Post (Canada)
August 27, 2010

Two years ago, facing pressure from anti-obesity lobby groups and children’s health organizations, some of the biggest food companies in the country vowed to not advertise their least healthy food offerings to children under the age of 12.

Hershey, PepsiCo, and McCain were among the groups who signed on to a voluntary industrywide manifesto, the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Others, including Burger King and Kellogg, agreed they would not pepper the TV airwaves with cartoony, kid-friendly images to promote foods that were high in sugar, salt and fat, and would instead reserve their kid-directed commercial messaging for their “healthier” offerings.

But fast-forward to today, and not much seems to have changed: Ads for Corn Pops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch air during morning cartoons on Teletoon, while spots for Triple Power Push Pop, a “fruit candy,” are in regular rotation during the network’s 7:30 a.m. Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show. And Tony the Tiger is still singing the praises of Frosted Flakes, but he’s doing so while promoting “active living,” chasing a soccer ball around a field.

The lack of self-regulatory success has led to growing calls for legislating food advertising to kids in Canada and the United States, from imposing detailed nutritional requirements to outright bans as public health officials grapple with skyrocketing obesity levels. Obesity rates in Canadian children have almost tripled in the past 25 years, according to the non-profit group Childhood Obesity Foundation, and 26% of children aged two to 17 years old are overweight or obese. If the trend continues, in 20 years 70% of the 35-to-44-year-olds in Canada would be overweight or obese, versus a current high of 57%.

Critics of the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative say the self-regulatory system is useless as it still allows advertisers to promote foods to kids that would make nutritionists shudder.

“This just reinforces the common-sense principle that the fox does a really poor job of guarding the henhouse,” says Dr. Tom Warshawski, chairman of the Vancouver-based Childhood Obesity Foundation. “How can [convenience food conglomerates] be in charge of marketing standards? This is their bread and butter. It’s common sense in that these various profitable business are pumping millions and millions into advertising to children. Children, by nature, are designed to absorb messaging. This highlights the importance of firm, objective regulations and some government enforcement.”

Under CRTC regulations, broadcasters must adhere to the Broadcast Code for Advertising to Children from industry organization Advertising Standards Canada (ASC).

The code offers few nutritional guidelines, beyond saying that marketers should not overtly disparage healthy food choices or show execssive portion sizes. The code is not legislated, although adhering to it is a condition of keeping a Canadian broadcasting licence.

On the Family network, there is no advertising during children’s programming, although morning between-show “bumpers” before and after Mickey Mouse House recently featured an animated promotion for Froot Loops Doubles cereal starring veteran animated mascot Toucan Sam, and his family. (A Family Network spokeswoman said spots highlighting contests, episodes, clips and games available on its website,, are allowed to have a “promotional partner” as long as the clip is not focused on overtly selling the sponsor’s product).

Teletoon officials were not available to comment on whether the morning airing of Bugs Bunny is deemed to be childrens’ programming. In any event, Triple Power Push Pop, a candy product manufactured by Topps with 25 grams of sugar per serving, would seemingly escape scrutiny, because Topps was not one of the manufacturers who signed on to the voluntary initiative.

Advertising less than wholesome food to kids is nothing new. A report this year on global food advertising to children on television in the American Journal of Public Health found that 67% of food ads directed towards children in 11 countries were for unhealthy products. Canadian children’s television had the third-highest proportion of unhealthy food ads, accounting for 82% of all food ads, the report said.

But how bad is advertising to children, really? It’s a matter of contention in the ad industry itself.

Alex Bogusky, one of the key creative visionaries of the past century, left the ad business in June after seeming to arrive at a personal crossroads. Mr. Bogusky, founding partner at the Miami-based, Canadian-owned advertising powerhouse Crispin Porter + Bogusky, had for years overseen a blue-chip client roster including Domino’s Pizza, Microsoft, Kraft and Burger King. But the father of two had become an increasingly outspoken advocate of banning advertising to children and had also written a book decrying North America’s gargantuan food portion sizes and dietary habits.

Children under 12 are “fundamentally and developmentally unequipped to deal with advertising in the way an adult can,” Mr. Bogusky argued in a soul-searching column on his blog in June.

“If you sit with a child and watch TV commercials, you will notice how vigorously effective the messages are: ‘I want that.’ ‘Can I have that?’ ‘I need that.’ These words come out of their mouths with seemingly every message, and they mean it and they believe it, and they are defenseless against it.”

Mr. Bogusky’s concerns echoed the findings of a 2003 report from the Canadian Paediatric Society on the impact of media use on children and youth, which cited numerous studies finding children under the age of eight “are developmentally unable to understand the difference between advertising and regular programming.”

But Sarah Johnson, principal at Toronto-based Athena Brand Wisdom, argues that regardless of childrens’ naïveté, parents ultimately have to take responsibility for their buying decisions. “In Brooklyn [N.Y.], there is apparently a movement to [prohibit] ice cream trucks from driving around the streets, because [seeing and hearing the trucks coming will] make the kids ask for it,” she said. “It’s insulting to consumers to suggest they are passive victims who are at the mercy of these evil corporations. Parents are the gatekeepers here, and at a certain point, a parent has to be a parent and say yes or no.”

Ron Telpner, chief executive at Toronto-based ad agency Brainstorm Group, also wonders how accountable the advertisers have to be at the end of the day for societal obesity and advertising. “Self-policing is not going to work — the tobacco industry couldn’t police itself,” he said. “But if you look at those young kids and what influences them, I am not convinced that they are as persuaded as their parents are by the ads; the easiest choices are probably the least healthy.

“At some point, the mom is the CEO of the household, and will decide whether to buy GoLean Crunch or Froot Loops.”

But in the meantime, Canada’s current system of self-regulation is drawing scorn from public health officials.

“There have been no meaningful improvements in the advertising industry [and] no evidence that the current system of self-regulation is capable of addressing the concerns raised by public health authorities,” since the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative went into effect in 2008, said a report to the city of Toronto from the city’s Medical Officer of Health this year. It echoed an earlier Board of Health recommendation to ban commercial advertising to children under the age of 13, and called for food ad legislation at all levels of government.

But what of the pledge that 19 companies signed on to follow, vowing to either promote healthy diet and lifestyle choices to those under 12 or to shift “children’s advertising and marketing emphasis to foods and beverages that are consistent with the principles of sound nutrition guidelines”?

Part of the problem with the initiative, the city of Toronto report noted, is that authorities such as Health Canada have no definition for what constitutes “healthy food,” having no recommended daily maximum intake for added sugar, for example. In the absence of that, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Froot Loops can easily fall on the acceptable side of their manufacturers’ own nutrition guidelines.

The Washington-based 2010 Center for Science in the Public Interest’s report card on food marketing to children noted that in the similarly self-regulating U.S. system, most food manufacturers and restaurant chains had set good standards for saturated and trans fats, but several companies that produced foods high in sodium had “weak or no sodium standards (Subway, McDonald’s), and the major cereal manufacturers [had] weak added-sugars standards.”

The Toronto report also noted that instead of reformulating the products to make them a bit healthier, Canadian companies whose products fell short of their nutrition standards could convert their producrs into healthy dietary choices by simply making the serving size smaller. (Before the 2008 advertising policy went into effect, General Mills Chocolate Lucky Charms cereal contained 15g of sugar per serving, exceeding its own standard of a 12g maximum being advertised to children. By the end of 2008, the same cereal had 11g of sugar per serving, therefore meeting the manufacturer’s nutrient criteria of a “healthier choice” that could be advertised to children. But rather than limiting actual sugar content, the company simply changed the serving size from 30g to 25g, the report said.)

When asked if cereal brands’ recommended serving sizes had changed after the advertising initiative was introduced, General Mills Canada did not answer directly, but said in an email response that “serving sizes on the Nutrition Facts Panel are defined by government standards.”

At Kellogg Canada, whose popularly advertised cereals include Corn Pops has (10 g of sugar per 1 cup serving), Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops, (each have 12 grams of sugar per 3/4 cup serving), the company “uses science-based standards to determine the nutrition criteria that are applied to all of its products marketed to children 6-12 years of age,” said Christine Lowry, vice-president of nutrition, government and corporate affairs, in an email. “At Kellogg, we believe in the concept of energy balance — balancing the calories consumed as part of a healthy diet the with the calories expended by physical activity.”

Dr. Warshawski of the Childhood Obesity Foundation is skeptical about marketers’ “active lifestyle” messaging, which might, for example, depict children mountain biking during a fast-food chain’s ad.
“It is almost impossible to exercise off all the [unhealthy] food that kids and adults can consume,” he noted. “A 14-year-old boy would have to jog for 35 minutes to burn off a standard 591 ml [soft drink]. That’s not going to happen. Kids tend to exercise in short bursts.”

While there is no set of defined nutritional standards for advertising to children in this country, many of the products Canadian marketers deem to be “healthy” dietary choices score poorly under the British system, and could not be advertised to children under the law there.

If Canadian companies were to take a page from our Heart and Stroke Foundation and follow the nutrient criteria of its Health Check program, many currently advertised products would not make it on the air. Advertised breakfast cereals would be among the hardest hit, limited to six grams or less of sugar per 30-gram serving and on-pack serving, and 240 miligrams or less of sodium. (To put that in perspective, a can of popular soft drink such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi has about 40 grams of refined sugar, or about 10 teaspoons; a breakfast-sized one-cup serving of Froot Loops contains about three teaspoons).

In the U.S., a battle is being waged over that country’s self-policing industry, but the Barack Obama administration has taken a much tougher tack than past governments, ordering the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend standards for children’s food advertising. A preliminary proposal last December considered a limit of eight grams of sugar per food serving, and all foods advertised to children would be required to contain substantial levels of healthy ingredients such as grains, fruit and vegetables.

Nevertheless, questions persist about whether banning such ads would result in a change in childrens’ food choices and consumption.

Quebec has banned advertising to children 12 and under since 1980, and in 2007 Britian banned unhealthy food advertising during kids’ TV, following the lead of Norway and Sweden in the prior decade.

While too early to see if the ban has had any effect in Britain, the ban in Sweden has not seemed to affect obesity rates. Statistics Canada data from 2004 found that the rate of overweight and obese children aged 2 to 17 was “significantly below” the national level in Quebec and Alberta, but since the ban was put in place more than 30 years ago, obesity levels have risen in Quebec just as they have in the rest of the country.

It’s also not clear how many parents are seriously concerned about the potential effect of food ads on kids. But if they were, it would be difficult to know where they would complain about it. A general complaint to the ASC about poor nutrition standards in food ads for kids would not trigger a review, and while complaints about a specific ad could result in it being pulled by the broadcaster if it violated the code, a complaint about nutrition would likely be irrelevant, given that the advertisers have been complying with the nutrition standards that they have set for themselves.

Further muddying the issue is the idea that “it’s not that simple” to determine what constitutes an ad directed at children, said Janet Feasby, vice-president of standards at the ASC. “Just because it features a child isn’t sufficient,” she said. “If the language is all directed to adults, it can’t be [meant for] children.”





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