Surprise! Food Companies Still Market to Children

By Marion Nestle

A 2005 report urged the feds to intervene. So what happened? Not much—and the original scolders have gone soft.

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At the end of 2005, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) produced an unusually hard-hitting report on food marketing to children. The report complained about lack of cooperation from food companies in providing data. Even so, the report concluded that "marketing works." It is highly effective at getting kids to demand and eat junk foods.

The report gave the food industry two years to cease and desist. If it didn't, the IOM said, federal regulation should be considered.

Well, five years have come and gone and some of the people involved in the IOM report have just published a progress assessment in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Despite lack of evidence in their review of the literature for real progress, the investigators' assessment is anything but hard-hitting:

Food and beverage companies made moderate progress; however, limited progress was made by other industry subsectors. Industry stakeholders used integrated marketing communications (IMC) to promote primarily unhealthy products, which threaten children's and adolescents' health and miss opportunities to promote a healthy eating environment.

Miss opportunties? That's one way to put it. Here are the conclusions:

Diverse industry stakeholders have several untapped opportunities to advance progress by promoting IMC to support a healthful diet; substantially strengthening self-regulatory programs; supporting truthful and non-misleading product labeling and health claims; engaging in partnerships; and funding independent evaluations of collective efforts.

The paper acknowledges:

The tensions among private- and public-sector stakeholders to promote a healthful diet to children and adolescents...conveying consistent and appealing messages; ensuring transparency by sharing relevant marketing data; obtaining company-wide commitments...balancing freemarket system goals with protecting young people's health; and committing to monitor and evaluate all efforts.

Oh those pesky freemarket system goals. Food companies cannot stop marketing junk foods to kids because the foods are profitable and their job as publicly traded companies is to grow profits every quarter.

That's why federal regulation is essential, a point not mentioned by these investigators or in the accompanying editorial. Instead, the editorial calls for counter-advertising:

The experience with tobacco is instructive. The most rapid period of decline in the use of cigarettes occurred not after television advertising was banned but in the period before the ban when counter ads were mandated as a proportion to the product ads.

I remember that period well. The counter-advertisements were so effective that kids insisted that their parents stop smoking.

But those ads were mandated. That's still government. Food companies cannot and will not stop marketing to kids on their own.



This post also appears on Food Politics.
Image: Gudlyf/flickr

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2011/08/surprise-food-companies-still-market-to-children/244173/