February 20th, 2006

Does Advertising Make Us Fat? Yes!

By Gary Ruskin
Commercial Alert

Talk about denial. After the Institute of Medicine issued a December report on food marketing and childhood obesity, the food and advertising industries sounded the alarm. "It’s the height of chutzpah," declared the pro-business Center for Consumer Freedom, "to call for sweeping federal regulations on marketing without having evidence to prove that advertisements cause childhood obesity."
Nice try. Problem is, the IOM study was merely confirming the obvious: that current food and beverage marketing practices put kids’ long-term health at risk.

While Big Food and its advertising partners should be chastened, instead we get endless denials. Wally Snyder of the American Advertising Federation, is typical: "Advertising is not the culprit" for the rise in childhood obesity, he says.

Such misguided thinking is going to catch up with you.

In Europe, it already has. Markos Kyprianou, the European Health Commissioner, said last year that he "would like to see the [food] industry not advertising directly to children any more." He gave the industry a year to self-regulate, or he will push for legislation.

As the tobacco industry showed, it is possible to rope-a-dope the science for a very long time. But increasing numbers of Americans are on to the game.

Food giants wouldn’t spend $11 billion a year on ads if they didn’t get a payback. People see the commercials, and don’t need a guy in a lab coat to tell them what piles of fatburgers and mega-gulps do to young bodies. But the more the industry stonewalls, the more it confirms parents’ suspicions that it cannot be trusted, and that new laws are necessary.

Parents resent commercial interloping that involves their kids. It’s outrageous that corporations pay for psychologists and hucksters to turn children into nags. If you want to sell something to kids, do so via ads aimed at parents—and let them decide whether a product is safe to buy.

Scores of top health scholars and medical groups have endorsed Commercial Alert’s call for a ban on junk food marketing to children 12 years of age and younger as "perhaps the single most inexpensive and cost-efficient way to reduce the global burden of obesity, diabetes and their complications among children."

Let’s look at soda pop. A study in the medical journal Lancet found that for each can of sugar-sweetened soda a child drinks daily, they are 1.6 times more likely to become obese. Another study in the British Medical Journal among children 7-11 years old found that those who were taught to drink less soda in school were 7% less likely to become obese than children who lacked such lessons.

Researchers writing in the International Journal of Obesity found that girls and boys who ate fast food three times or more a week had far higher calorie intakes: 37% and 40%, respectively, compared to those who didn’t eat any fast food. Another study in the journal Pediatrics found that on any given day, children who ate fast food took in 187 extra calories than kids who abstained from such meals.

When ads boost demand for soda pop and fast food, should we really be surprised that childhood obesity is a result? No one claims that marketing is the sole culprit. Obviously, obesity is a complex problem with many causes. Everyone agrees that children need more exercise. But it’s hard not to laugh when marketers boast that ads work—except for products like tobacco, alcohol and junk food.

Your denials are helping to generate a broad-based movement to restrict advertising to children, and ads in general. That movement is gaining strength, and you are pouring bacon fat on the fire.

Big Food isn’t yet as unpopular as Big Tobacco. But since you’re using the same playbook, don’t be surprised if you end up where they did.

The federal government won’t always be a wholly owned subsidiary of Corporate America and its army of influence-peddlers. Pent-up frustration arising from the marketing of tobacco, pharmaceuticals, junk food, alcohol—and to children in general—may well bring legislation or court decisions that put childrens’ health ahead of profits and commercial speech.

It’s time to concede the obvious: childhood obesity is a marketing-related disease, so stop marketing to children. Americans will respect you if you accept responsibility, and the consequences, for years of wrongdoing. Ignore this warning and you’ll end up battling Congress and state legislatures, courts, school boards and town halls—a pariah, stripped of its privileges, and hamstrung in ways you may not yet be able to imagine.

Which road will you choose?

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