Junkfood Science: Our kids are doomed — not!

March 30, 2007

Our kids are doomed — not!

This week, every mainstream media outlet in the country reported on the Kaiser Family Foundation study looking at children’s exposure to television food advertisements. The stories were all taken from a carefully-worded press release but reporters failed to critically examine it or the study and leapt to fill in the blanks. The stories they created did nothing more than frighten parents and perpetuate myths about fat children.

In “Big Food Kills,” syndicated columnist, Maria Cocco, with the Washington Post Writers Group, reported:

If we are what we eat and we eat what is advertised, then American children are facing death by junk food.

Half of all the advertising time on children’s television shows is devoted to food ads, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study of food advertising aimed at kids. And what do the commercials pitch? Candy, cereal, fast-food and other restaurants, soda and other sweetened drinks. Just as surely as the tobacco industry tried for years—and succeeded—in hooking young kids on its deadly weed, the food industry is spending billions to advertise products that will make the next generation look and live like its porky parents: overweight, and at great risk of debilitating disease and early deaths linked to obesity....

The combination of saturation advertising for junk food and the sedentary lives that today’s kids lead already has caused an unprecedented jump in childhood obesity...The food industry [must] voluntarily change the content of the ads it produces for children. Otherwise it too could stand accused of killing our kids for profit. There’s no way to sugarcoat that.

The New York Post published “How Kids ‘Ad’ on Pounds:”

Children are getting fat because artichokes, broccoli and cucumbers get less TV advertising than pizza, burgers and sweets, a new study says.

More than 70 percent of food advertising is for candy, snacks and fast food, says the study by the Kaiser Family Foundation....City Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said inundating youngsters with junk-food ads was scandalous given the "terrible epidemic of childhood obesity."

Headlines across the country were similarly disturbing, such as the Washington Post’sForced Feeding: Researchers say commercials for candy and fast food hit kids in the gut” and CBS News’ “Steady TV diet makes children obese.” One reporter at the Murfreesboro Post in TN posed a question of the study’s significance but then went on to make the very same logical fallacy as every other journalist. A believed correlation was turned into a causation, leading him to conclude: “While no scientific proof exists, it doesn’t take much thought to link these food commercials to America’s childhood obesity problem.”

As is clear to readers, there are politics afoot and what’s really behind these stories and the sweeping dissemination of the press release (through very effective marketing) are efforts to impose more restrictive regulations on the food industry. The food industry can defend itself. That is not the worry here. While most people would probably feel it’s unconscionable to use children to promote a political agenda, the primary concern for parents and heathcare providers is the welfare of children and factual information. Yet the full story was not to be found in the media.

For young parents, these articles reinforced the same myths that they hear everywhere and may have come to believe: that today’s children are eating the worst diets ever, that bad food makes children fat, and that fat children and their parents are not only lazy and irresponsible but their children are in peril of succumbing to chronic disease and early death.

The Kaiser study, however, did not find that TV ads were making children fat and it most certainly didn’t find anything remotely like they’re killing them. What this study and press release — and hence the media — craftily didn’t say is where you’ll find the information needed to bring balance to this situation and recognize it's all spin.

Since the first days of television, children have been exposed to ads for candy, sugary cereals and toy promotions. Babyboomers will fondly remember growing up during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s with Tony the Tiger promoting Frosted Flakes as “Great!”, Freddie Flintstone dancing for Fruity Pebbles, Dubble Bubble gum, cartoon leprechauns enjoying colorful marshmallows in Lucky Charms, Captain Crunch, Twix the rabbit, Tweety Bird, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck all eating sweet stuff kids love. Ads for healthy eating were nonexistent. Never mind that we managed to survive childhood just fine, today’s parents without this historical balance are being led to believe that their children are being exposed to incredibly more commercials for these “bad” foods and that it is harming them.

The Kaiser study reported that in 2005, young children, ages 2-7, saw about a dozen food commercials a day — 4,400 a year. Of these food commercials, 34% were for candy and treats and 28% were for cereals. And tweens saw the most food ads, at about 21 a day. But the study failed to mention if this is more or less than in past generations! They simply made a note about rising rates of childhood obesity and left the public to make a connection.

As we’ve noted previously, with the variety of media options available to kids today, they are spending less time watching television. And, as Todd Zywicki, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, in a presentation on Obesity and Advertising Policy for the Federal Trade Commission, confirmed, the evidence shows the percentage of children watching excessive amounts of TV has continued to drop since 1990.

Kids are seeing fewer commercials, too. Be careful about concluding the opposite based upon reports on the escalating amount of money spent on television advertising to children because those could reflect the skyrocketing costs of advertising today, not the volume! According to Pauline M. Ippolito with the Bureau of Economics at the FTC, children today are spending fewer minutes than in 1977 viewing television advertising. She adds that since 1977, food ads on television are down 34% on kids shows and 50% on family shows. Since the 1970s, the FTC has had limits on the amount and types of advertising that could appear in children’s programming.

And the Kaiser report itself admits that since their study was done, the country’s top food companies have initiated even more new policies for advertising to children under 12 years of age and have been phasing out ads to children. “These policies include devoting at least half of their advertising across all venues to healthier foods or to messages that encourage fitness or nutrition, as well as reducing the use of licensed characters in advertising less healthy food options,” they write. This point never made the news.

“There is no indication that the percentage of food ads has risen versus other products,” over the decades, either, said Dr. Zywicki.

In fact, despite fears that the amount of “junk” depicted in food ads is soaring, the composition of ads has also “remained remarkably stable since the 1970s,” concluded Dale Kunkel, Ph.D. in a paper, “Children and television advertising,” published in 2001. Dr. Kunkel is a professor of Communication at the University of Arizona who has conducted extensive research on children’s advertising.

A study by researchers at the University of Delaware in Newark, published in the American Journal of Health Behavior, carefully analyzed the commercial content of television advertising targeting children in the United States since 1972 and concluded that “the types of products advertised have remained constant over 25 years.” They found that breakfast cereals are the most advertised food and has remained constant since 1972 (38.5% in 1972; 41% in 1976; 31% in 1987; 39.3% in 1994; 37.8% in 1996).

Sugary foods have appealed to kids for as long as kids have been kids.

Many papers claiming to have evidence that television advertising to children has gone to the dark side also use inadequate sampling strategies, according to Brian Young, BSc, Ph.D., economic psychologist at Exeter University, Devon, UK. It is easy to manipulate data by selectively sampling data. His research has found, for example, dramatic seasonal variations in advertising content. Toys dominate before the Christmas holidays while food treats are higher in the summer months when kids are home. And while children’s programming is popularly targeted by policy makers, he said, kids are exposed to more advertising during prime time when the family is watching TV. “An ‘adequate’ sampling strategy should take into account possible geographical variations within a country as well as weekly and seasonal variations,” said Dr. Young in a 2003 review of existing research on food advertising and obesity for the European Association of Communications Agencies. The Kaiser study sampled only during the summer months but still found a lower percentage of food products advertised to children than the 63% found in the historical perspective conducted at the University of Delaware.

The Kaiser study admirably tallied all of the commercials aired between 6 am and midnight for a week on each of the top networks and divided them by the number of hours children of various ages watch television. But, of course, this says nothing about how many of these commercials the children actually paid attention to. As any parent knows, kids are not sitting glued to the tube. “ It is well-known that people, including children, do not just sit and watch TV but talk, walk around, and time-share with various other activities like reading or doing homework,” said Dr. Young. Another Kaiser Family Foundation study on media usage examined here, confirmed this. It found that kids today are multi-tasking and doing their homework, playing a multiplayer online role playing game, talking on the phone, listening to iTunes, watching a DVD and IMing friends all at the same time!

Finally, despite all of these “positive” trends, concerning the question of whether television food advertising influences what kids eat or the onset of obesity, this new Kaiser study specifically states it didn’t address any of that. Junkfood Science readers know that eating right and exercising are the wrong things to focus on anyway, and won’t ever eradicate childhood obesity because the research has consistently shown that what children eat and do isn’t the cause for the diversity in sizes among children.

Even the Institute of Medicine’s 2005 report, “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity,” repeatedly stated that the evidence is insufficient to claim a causal relationship from television advertising to fatness in children.

This was the same conclusion reached by Dr. Young: “After a careful and thorough examination of the published literature on the role of advertising in obesity, we can conclude that there is no evidence for a direct causal relationship between food advertising and obesity levels.” Some reports have found correlations, he noted, but none have “demonstrated a link between exposure to advertising for certain types of foods and an increase in consumption of those foods amongst adults and children.” And none have gone on to show that eating differences result in obesity.

Do junkfood ads really have kids surrounded?

But the most flagrantly misleading aspect of this report is its assertion that children’s “exposure to countervailing health messages on TV is minimal.” They use the fact that public service announcements (psas) promoting nutrition and exercise are far fewer in number than food ads.

They appear to honestly want us to believe that the only healthy eating messages children hear are in PSAs. By looking only at commercials, they fail to look at the CONTENT of children’s programming.

Decades of children grew up with the only cartoon character eating anything remotely “healthy” being Popeye the Sailor Man who chomped down spinach by the can.

For years now, our kids have been inundated by their favorite animated characters and programs devoted to telling them to eat right and exercise. But we are not to see messages as marketing when they are for "good" food. On Nickelodeon, SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer are promoting fruits and vegetables, thanks to a partnership between Nickelodeon and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Back in 2005, Nickelodeon said it was spending $20 million and 10% of air time on health and wellness messages, such as a spot to encourage breakfast called “It’s Breakfast Time” with singing spoons and forks. Nickelodeon’s “Lazy" Town” has Robbie Rotten as a villain because he’s lazy and an athletic hero, Sportacus, who can be defeated if he eats sugar.

A few years ago, Sesame Street kicked off new programming, “Healthy Habits for Life.” Bert, Elmo and Grover are now teaching the importance of eating “healthy,” more fruits and vegetables, and being active. Big Bird, Elmo and the rest of the characters have been joined by vegetable Muppets encouraging kids to “eat your colors” and play the “healthy foods name game.” The Cookie Monster’s song is now “A cookie is a sometime food.”

Oh, a cookie is a sometime food

There are plenty of other fruits and veg'tables

That are healthy for you all the time

They're delicious, they are yummy

Try an apple, peach, or plummy


A cookie is a sometime food

Yes, a cookie is a sometime food

Oh, a cookie is a sometime food

If you're looking for a-something to snack on

For somethin' sweet, you're in the mood

Try an orange or some cherries

Try a melon or some berries


A cookie is a sometime food

But an apple is an any time food

Yes a banana is an any time food

Yes, a fruit is an any time food!

Yes, a fruit is an any time food!

It appears cartoon characters in the UK are also being employed to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. The BBC reported “Elffy foods” features a team of elves who earn themselves special powers every time they pick up healthy food.

PBS’ Boohbah and the Disney Channel’s JoJo’s Circus invite young viewers to get off the couch and move with the characters. “The Wiggles” tells kids to eat healthy food and teaches health with songs such as “Fruit Salad, Yummy Yummy.”

And Veggie Tales run for what seems like hours during the weekend on our local station.

As one parent wrote:

Disgusting. Obesity is the tobacco use of the millennium. When I was a kid, we were bombarded at school to avoid cigarettes. The after school specials warned against tobacco use. Cartoon characters talked about hating smoke, etc. Now, there’s “Lazy Town” and Barney’s song.... Every kids’ commercial I see talks about balanced nutrition. My son is constantly asking me, “Mommy, is this healthy?” So no, kids are not oblivious to healthy eating. They are certainly getting the message that ‘healthy eating’ and exercise are important.

And this is just a glimpse of children’s programming. Prime time is filled with shows featuring the biggest weight losers, make-overs, and nonstop news about the obesity epidemic and need for healthy lifestyles. Of course, we’d never realize any of this from reading the news this week. Instead, we are to uncritically accept that “bad” food has our children surrounded and we are to fear for them. And worse, that it is something our sweet children should grow up worrying about. Missing is balance, calmness and common sense. Based on all available credible evidence, we really can dare to let kids be kids and simply enjoy their childhoods.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

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