April 4th, 2007

Living Well: Food Biz Feeds Kids a Steady Marketing Diet

By Bob Condor
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

He makes no apologies for it, especially given his long view. Bob McCannon is not convinced when he hears that the food industry is committed to promoting more healthful diets and lifestyles.

“I have not seen much change in the way that industry is marketing to kids,” said McCannon, the New Mexico-based co-president of the Action Coalition for Media Education. “In fact, there seems to be even more blatant marketing to children. Industry is arrogant in its refusal to stop.”

McCannon was quick with some examples: Smoking in the movies, which is resoundingly more prevalent in PG-13 films since the huge-dollar settlement between Big Tobacco and states. The marketing of sexual lifestyles in all forms of media to kids is “way worse than 10 years ago.” Violence in video games is increased “across the board and not noticed in any significant way by the media.”

And don’t get started on how marketers already are using cell phones and other mobile devices to communicate directly and personally with preteens and teens.

More evidence about the commercial deluge aimed at children was reported in the P-I last week. The Kaiser Family Foundation released a report showing that the typical American preteen or “tween” (8 to 12 years old) watches 21 commercials for foods and beverages each day or 7,600 in a year. Teens view 17 per day or about 6,000 per year, likely because they watch programming with more ads for entertainment and alcohol. Kids 2 to 7 years old were reported to see 12 such daily commercials or 4,400 per year.

A third of the ads were for snacks and candy, 29 percent for cereal , 10 percent for beverages, 10 percent for fast food, 4 percent for dairy, 4 percent for prepared foods and the rest for breads, pastries and restaurants. Vicki Rideout, a researcher for Kaiser, told The Associated Press that most of those ads are “for products that nutritionists would tell us they need to be eating less of, not more of, if we’re going to get a handle on childhood obesity.”

Upon the report’s release, ad industry officials were pointing out the study was executed in late 2005 and that media patterns have changed for the more healthful since then. Another official asked for consumer patience because in November 2006, 10 major food and drink companies including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Pepsico agreed to voluntary guidelines that will require half of all their commercials to be classified as touting healthy eating and living.

You already know McCannon’s opinion. Let’s agree he is not alone.

On its surface, the Kaiser report doesn’t figure to surprise too many parents who might sit on the sofa next to their kids to watch a television show. But McCannon, for one, said those results don’t shock or stagger parents, either. That is a problem, as he sees it.

“The average middle-class parents and families realize so little (about what their children are watching on TV),” McCannon said. “They are not clued in to the junk foods ads or violence or sexuality. They don’t think about it.”

For the past six months, McCannon has conducted an in-depth analysis of all available media literacy research. The goal was to determine if teaching children about the intent of advertiser messages—to get them or their parents to buy—would help them filter the commercials any more prudently. It has been a common suggestion in recent years to talk with kids about TV commercials to raise their awareness about the outright selling and “brand-washing” that goes on.

McCannon’s findings will be published in a textbook on kids and marketing due out this fall. But there’s no need to wait for his conclusions.

“One thing is clear,” he said. “We can teach kids to deconstruct media and commercial messages, but, honestly, it has no effects on attitude and behavior. Some of the things I myself have been teaching for years don’t seem to work.”

What does make a difference, he says, is parental involvement in a “non-coercive way to change a kid’s media diet.”

Non-coercive translates into the child agreeing to or accepting as sensible any decreases in media consumption. Outright banning television and other media can have a “boomerang effect” that McCannon says is documented in about 15 studies. The only proven media strategy is getting kids to help make the decisions, such as agreeing that you only watch TV or browse the Internet in common rooms of the home, picking what shows are allowed and for what age and how many hours per week.

You still can put media literacy to good use: Encourage your child to take notice of blatant marketing messages while discussing favorite or funny commercials. You might incorporate the superb clinical work of Stanford University physician Dr. Tom Robinson, whose research shows that persuading middle schoolers to keep TV-watching logs helps them realize how they might be wasting time better spent on hobbies and other interests. Robinson also has developed a reward system of sorts for kids who increase reading and write book reports.

Some parents work on a weekends-only pattern for television viewing, while others bypass commercials by employing the DVD player for movies and other programs. The key idea is to get involved and not take those 12 or 17 or 21 daily junk-food commercials as normal and inevitable.

McCannon said it is no coincidence that European countries such as France have proposed a limit on the influx of American media, including the 13 networks studied in the Kaiser report. He points to the more stringent rating systems for children’s media in Germany and Scandinavian countries.

“Other countries don’t have a First Amendment or worship it,” McCannon said. “And they don’t have global corporations who think the First Amendment is the greatest thing because they can hide behind it.”

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