A strong body of existing research, including a 2006 research review by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, concludes that children’s exposure to television advertising for non-nutritious food products is a significant risk factor contributing to childhood obesity.
In 2007, amidst growing public concern about this issue, the food and beverage industry responded with the self-regulatory Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. This initiative aims to significantly improve the nutritional quality of food and beverage products advertised to children.
However, a new study by Children Now, released at a national conference in Washington, D.C., on December 14, 2009, reveals the failure of the food and beverage industry’s “Better-for-You” initiative to achieve promised improvements in the nutritional quality of foods advertised to children and raises serious doubt about the future viability of industry self-regulation to help address the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
In 2007, major food companies such as Kellogg, General Mills, Conagra and PepsiCo banded together and pledged to stop advertising unhealthy foods to children. Children Now’s report, The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children, holds the industry accountable for its promise.
Despite a major effort at self-regulation, nearly three out of four (72.5%) of the foods advertised on television to children are for products in the poorest nutritional category. Known as “Whoa” foods, these products should be consumed only on “special occasions, such as your birthday,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Advertising for truly healthy foods, such as vegetables and fruits, known as “Go” products, is virtually invisible. Commercials for such foods account for only 1% of all food advertising to children.
Figure: 72.5% of foods advertised on TV to children are in the poorest nutritional category
(Click to enlarge image)
The study, funded by The California Endowment, provides the first independent, comprehensive evaluation of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and its impact on the children’s food marketing environment on television.
The advertising environment targeting children continues to expose them to nutritionally poor food products, contributing to the current childhood obesity epidemic. As such, it is time for our nation’s leaders to step forward and help ensure a healthy food advertising environment for our children.
In 2004, Congress commissioned the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies of Sciences to evaluate the role of food marketing as a contributing factor to childhood obesity. The IOM report, released in 2006, reviewed all existing scientific studies and determined that food and beverage advertising targeted at children influences their product preferences, requests and diet. It concluded that “food and beverage marketing practices geared to children and youth are out of balance with healthful diets, and contribute to an environment that puts their health at risk.”
Given the severity of the childhood obesity epidemic, the IOM recommended that the food and beverage industry shift its marketing practices to children away from products high in added sugar, salt and fat, and toward healthy products that children can safely consume as part of their everyday diet. To underscore the importance of this goal, the IOM specified that if the industry proved unable to achieve such reform voluntarily, Congress should intervene with legislation.
The IOM’s conclusions confirmed the role of food and beverage marketing practices in the childhood obesity crisis, subsequently increasing attention to the issue among public health officials and children’s advocates. In response to this growing pressure for change, the food and beverage industry responded with a self-regulatory program aimed at reducing unhealthy food advertising to children. This program is known as the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
In 2006, in partnership with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, a coalition of major food companies announced that it would significantly improve the nutritional quality of foods advertised to children. The publicly stated goal of this voluntary industry effort, called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, is to “change the landscape of child-directed advertising” by encouraging healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles in all advertising to children.
Children Now’s research study, The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children, reveals the failure of the food and beverage industry’s “Better-for-You” initiative to achieve promised improvements in the nutritional quality of foods advertised to children and raises serious doubt about the future viability of industry self-regulation to help address the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
The initiative introduced the term “Better-for-You” to identify the products that participating companies had self-selected as the healthier food and beverage products they would continue to advertise to children. The initiative, however, lacked uniform criteria specifying the minimum nutritional standards for the “better-for-you” designation. Rather, each of the participating companies issued its own detailed pledge that defined “better-for-you” in its own way, resulting in substantial variability in the nutritional criteria used from one company to the next.
On July 14, 2011, Children Now filed comments on behalf of several groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, to the Federal Trade Commission on the Interagency Working Group’s (IWG) proposed nutrition guidelines for food marketed to children. The debate surrounding these voluntary nutrition guidelines is not about jobs, yogurt or wheat bread, as the food and beverage industry would like it to become. It’s a life and death issue for America’s children. While Children Now views the proposed guidelines as a means to significantly reduce children’s and teen’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing by improving on current self-regulatory efforts, Children Now urges the IWG to ensure that the guidelines cover child and adolescent audiences, since both groups need protection for different reasons.
On September 23, 2008, two subcommittees of the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations held a hearing in Washington, D.C. to hear from experts on the role of media and advertising in the childhood obesity epidemic. Entitled, “Watch What You Eat: Food Marketing to Children,” Children Now testified on the need for media companies to do more to improve the advertising environment for children.
In 2006, Children Now hosted “The Future of Children’s Media: Advertising” at the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C. This conference brought together the nation’s leading children’s media executives, policymakers, academics and advocates to discuss how new methods of advertising and marketing are being used to reach children today, what’s on the horizon, and potential steps we can take to better ensure children’s well-being in a rapidly evolving media environment, including potential policy and voluntary solutions.
One outcome of the conference was the establishment of the bipartisan Joint Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity led by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin (R), and FCC Commissioners Deborah Tate (R) and Michael Copps (D). One of the goals of the task force was to explore the voluntary steps that the private sectors can take to combat childhood obesity.