Did the food industry buy your kid?

In the wake of the New York State Supreme Court striking down New York City’s ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces, a surprising op-ed appeared in the New York Times. The essay encouraged New York City, despite the ruling, not to give up trying to limit the aggressive marketing tactics of big food companies and the soda industry. The surprise, however, was not the sentiment – after all, many public health leaders applaud Mayor Bloomberg’s latest effort to address obesity by regulating sales of super-sized sodas.

The op-ed, it turns out, was written by a former food industry insider, Kraft Foods executive Michael Mudd. Mudd had left the industry when he could no longer accept, as he called it, “a business model that put profits over public health.” Mudd argues that it is big food processors and soft drink companies who are the most culpable for the growth in obesity. “Over the years, relentless efforts were made to increase the number of eating occasions people indulged in and the amount of food they consumed at each. Even as awareness grew of the health consequences of obesity, the industry continued to emphasize cheap and often unhealthful ingredients that maximized taste, shelf life and profits,” he wrote.

Selling food and beverages to kids is big business. According to a recent Federal Trade Commission report, the food and beverage industry, including fast food restaurants, spent 1.79 billion dollars in 2009 to sell products mostly low in nutrition and high in calories, sugars, salt and fats to America’s children. Seventy-two percent of this was spent on fast food restaurants, carbonated beverages and breakfast cereals.

The industry considers huge marketing budgets as money well-spent to capture a new generation of lifetime consumers starting with the “pester power” of toddlers through the purchasing power of adolescents. Children and teens are considered a particularly lucrative market because not only do they do their own purchasing, they represent the consumers of the future, and they influence billions of dollars of purchasing among their parents. Studies show what every parent - and advertiser – knows: by the time they reach two, kids are asking for products they’ve seen on TV, and parents usually buy them.

Ads are hard to avoid. Researchers estimate that children are exposed to an average of 7.6 food and beverage TV ads per hour, with 70 percent promoting sugary cereals, sugary snacks, and fast foods or the restaurants that serve them. In some places ads are on school buses, school scoreboards, school athletic and recreation facilities, and corner storefronts in large colorful posters.

Increasingly, fast food, beverages and snack food ads pop up on cell phones via Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, and video games. Kids are rewarded with product coupons for recruiting their friends to company websites that feature “advergames”  – a name that accurately describes games in which branded products are an interactive part of the play. In the video game Mouth Full of Cheetos, for example, you win by “eating” as many Cheetos as possible, as quickly as possible. Unlike expensive TV ads, advergames encourage children to return to advertiser’s website many times, share them with other children, and stay engaged in product marketing for longer periods.

At the same time, cross-promotion marketing links products to popular movies, TV shows, cartoon characters, toy, sports teams, video games, websites, theme parks and other entertainment venues. Kellogg’s has a line of fruit-flavored snacks with tie-ins to a range of children’s movies including Ice Age, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Brave and Cars. Throw in advertisers' “product placement” in movies, books and videos, and philanthropy (Coke Rewards School Donations), and you have a well-orchestrated, multidimensional and highly integrated campaign that is difficult to ignore.

So what's the harm? Shouldn’t companies have the right to advertise their products in a free market or promote large portion sizes? Companies claim they are not creating demand, but simply responding to it. After all, isn’t it the parents’ role to monitor kids’ food choices and spending?

Yes, but . . . as marketing tactics blur the line between advertising and entertainment, parents' attempts to monitor their children’s food preferences become more difficult. Beginning with ads geared toward toddlers, the message is clear – eating junk food is fun, exciting, happy and great-tasting. Children under eight cannot understand the inherent commercial bias of ads, and even older children and adolescents are susceptible to the sophisticated, teen-centered hype. There also is evidence that food companies disproportionately target advertising for high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods to black and Hispanic communities, where youth are most vulnerable to obesity and obesity-related disease.

Public health advocates point to the growing number of scientific studies that have shown a link between food and beverage advertising to kids and childhood obesity and poor nutrition. Many are calling for regulations and bans on ads to children. The food and beverage industry vehemently disagrees and says progress is being made from the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, in which industry partners have signed on to “shift the mix of foods advertised to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.” Critics are skeptical. They note that in 2011, the food and beverage industry invested millions of dollars to successfully lobby against more comprehensive but still voluntary guidelines developed by an intergovernmental working group convened by Congress.

Meanwhile, selling kids foods high in calories and low in nutrition continues to be big business.

Nan Feyler is chief of staff for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health.

Read more about The Public's Health.