Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising: Marketing to a Vulnerable Audience

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November 11, 2012 by jaherber

     Unhealthy foods and bad eating habits have contributed enormously to rising childhood obesity rates in the United States.  In an effort to curtail this rise, both private sector food vendors and government agencies have agreed that something needs to be done.  Groups like the government appointed Interagency Working Group (IWG), consisting of the FDA, USDA, CDC and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), as well as, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which consists of a coalition comprised of the Better Business Bureau along with 16 top food and beverage distributors, have been established and proactively inspired to develop self regulating guidelines to promote a better advertising environment for children. The IWG has two guiding principles that it seeks to adopt: a) help guide kids to healthy food options and b) lead them away from unhealthy foods high in saturated fats, sodium, sugar and trans fats. Similarly, the CFBAI seeks to not only promote healthier food choices, but also add stipulations that ask members of the coalition to refrain from using popular movie characters, magazines or kid purposed media.  On the surface, these all seem like solid solutions to the problem and will go a long way to aiding in the ongoing fight against childhood obesity. However, there is always grey area when it comes to enforcement versus financial bottom lines. As we all know, every company is in business to make money. No one can argue or blame them in that regard, so the next question that begs to be asked is, how truly committed are these companies to achieving real change?  The voluntary two fold regulations that the IWG want to pass have been held up in political gridlock, according to a Washington Post Article, partly because the food and beverage vendors are afraid of it being what they call a “backdoor regulation” that will spell doom for children’s advertising and ultimately cost millions of jobs for their employees while also “infringing on commercial free speech.”  Though an extreme position, given that these guidelines are completely voluntary, the second hindrance of there being no cost-benefit information available to substantiate the validity of any regulations does give a bit more credence to the vendors’ stance.  Despite the fact that I consider myself more in favor of the regulatory changes on the basis of moral responsibility, even I cannot blame them for wanting to protect their own interests before embarking on a campaign that could possibly cost them more money without guarantee of a health benefit change.  

    I think we all agree that food advertisements geared towards children should be responsibly monitored; however this topic goes deeper than that.  It also delves into the age old debates of private sector liberties versus government regulation and economic impact versus moral obligation.  Who’s right? I wish I knew, but it seems as though the main missing ingredient here is data. As stated in the previously mentioned Washington Post article, the one hurdle that is limiting the forward progress of the IWG voluntary guidelines is a true cost-benefit analysis. Information is always the pathway to change.   Once the government delivers on the cost-benefit analysis of the initiative, only then will we truly know how dedicated to change the food and beverage vendors are.  Let’s hope that they are willing to keep up their end and maybe all of the sides in the above mentioned debates can be satisfied. 

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One thought on “Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising: Marketing to a Vulnerable Audience

  1. hkari2012 says:

    This is a great discussion of the big stakeholders in this issue of marketing to children. Another platform that I believe the marketing industry will use to make its case is one of free speech. Is regulating TV commercials and other media, whether mandatory or through “back door” voluntary policies, limiting freedom of speech? Our country is all about “rights”. Tthe freedom of speech platform is often used even when the topic faces ethical dilemmas of whether the speaker really should be sharing their opinions (i.e. yes, they have the “right” to make a commercial selling Hot Cheetos & Takis to kids but just because they have the right does not mean they should).

    Your discussion of the stakeholders made me wonder what parents’ interest groups have said. And, not surprisingly, I found articles sharing their uproar. The Center for Digital Democracy (that’s right we’re in the 21st century with our interest groups) has created a coalition with some of the parent’s and children advocacy groups to protest online advertising to children. The companies under attack include McDonald’s, General Mills, and Subway. However, they aren’t complaining about these companies brainwashing their children to sway their eating habits but rather for using the children’s personal information, such as pictures online(1). Although they are using the rhetoric of personal safety it would be interesting to see how this plays out in terms “kids rights” in food marketing to children online.

    Beyond this complaint, however, I was unable to find a special interest group that was seeking to protect children from food marketing gimics. There are lots of local parent’s interest groups that are sharing their thoughts on the school lunches, though! Angry moms tend to get attention; I know my mom got my attention when angry! Are parents bothered by the marketing schemes? Or are the ones that are bothered by the schemes just limiting screen time?

    1.Markowtiz, Eric. Consumer Groups Blast Companies for Violating Kid’s Rights http://www.inc.com/eric-markowitz/consumer-groups-blasts-companies-for-violating-kids-rights.html

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