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Junk food ads, sugary rewards lead to fatter kids


Jennifer Motl

The Free Lance-Star
April 6, 2008



THERE IS a worldwide movement to shield children from ads for junk food. Although junk food is not the only cause of obesity, advertising for junk foods is linked to weight gain.

Today, twice as many American kids are overweight as in the 1980s, and many kids already have high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.

This month, two groups--the International Obesity Taskforce and Consumers International--proposed limiting ads for junk foods that target children.

They suggest:

A ban on TV and radio ads for junk food between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.;

No marketing of junk food on Web sites, social networking sites and cell phone text-messaging;

No promotion of unhealthy food in schools;

No inclusion of free gifts, toys or other collectibles that are attractive to children;

No use of celebrities, cartoon characters or competitions.

Advertising today is more subtle than the jingles I fondly remember from my childhood, such as the Oscar Mayer wiener song. Now, popular movie and TV characters like Dora the Explorer also appear on food packages.

"It's as if that whole television program is an ad for the Dora cookies," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit group in Washington. "As a mom, I know for sure that marketing works, because many a time [at the grocery store], my daughter reaches over for a box with one of her favorite characters on it, and she has no idea of what's in that box."

More subtle advertising affects kids too, such as movie shots that zoom in on products. Back in 1982, it was reported that sales of Reese's Pieces candies skyrocketed after being featured in the movie "E.T., The Extra Terrestrial."

Children start requesting foods by brand name by the age of 24 months, according to published studies from University of Minnesota researchers.

Marketers count on the "nag factor" or "pester power"--kids begging their parents to buy. Parents give in about half the time.

Children ages 2 to 7 see an average of 12 food ads a day on TV, nearly 30 hours per year, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. Most ads are for soft drinks, sugary cereals, candy, snacks and fast food.

Studies show that children under the age of 8 cannot tell gimmicks from truth. Food corporations spend about $10.5 billion a year targeting kids, about 32 times more than the government spent on nutrition education, say the Minnesota researchers.

beyond tv

Most marketing happens when parents aren't around to protect their kids: in schools, on the Internet, and even via text messages to children's cell phones.

Although many schools have stopped selling sodas, about 20 percent of schools sell fast-food in the cafeterias.

Outside the cafeteria, children are assaulted by ads for unhealthy foods on athletic scoreboards, sponsorship banners in gyms, ads in school newspapers and yearbooks, free textbook covers with ads, and screen-saver ads on school computers for branded foods and beverages.

About 38 percent of middle and high schools in the U.S. show Channel One, a current-events program that carries ads for soft drinks and fatty snacks, according to the Minnesota researchers. The schools get free video equipment in return.

Some ads masquerade as education. Pizza chains offer free pizza parties as reading incentives, and McDonald's gives away free coupons for fatty foods as a reward for its McSpellit club.


The United States limits the length of TV advertising to children, but not whether the ads promote unhealthy foods. The government also requires parental permission for children to give out information online.

Some companies are working with the nonprofit Council of Better Business Bureaus to promote healthier advertising toward children, but not all companies are involved. Nor does the group address all the marketing in schools.

In comparison, Quebec, Canada, has banned all advertising aimed at children under age 13. Sweden and Belgium ban TV ads aimed at children. Groups in the United Kingdom and Australia are trying to follow that lead.

"I think as parents, we need to band together and ask companies to stop undermining our efforts to feed our kids healthfully," says Wootan, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

What you can do:

Model healthy eating and physical activity.

Call or write food and entertainment companies and ask them to stop marketing junk food.

Ask Congress to pass the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act. You can read more at

Get involved with your school board. Say "no" to school districts that sell your child's health for revenue from junk-food sales and ads. You wouldn't want cigarettes or liquor advertised to a captive audience of kids--junk food should not be promoted either, especially without parental consent.


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