Let’s bring some Doritos to the table and talk this out…


November 12, 2012 by kalnajja

Food Marketing to children is currently under attack.  As more links between the childhood obesity epidemic and food marketing to youth are made, it is not hard to see why.  The average US child watches 13 food commercials a day and teens see more than 16 commercials a day (1).  Most of these commercials (if not all) are advertising highly processed foods or drinks high in sodium, sugar or fat.  So when lawmakers are brainstorming strategies to improve the health of our children, whom do they restrict?  ….Food Marketers.

Both the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) created by the Better Business Bureau in 2006 and the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) called together as a directive from Congress in 2009 with representatives from the FTC, CDC, FDA and USDA, have created nutrition-related marketing guides for companies to follow. With a shared goal to improve children’s diets, the two sets of guidelines have been received very differently.

The business community has portrayed the guidelines developed by IWG as “job killing government outreach”. (harsh, I know)  Food makers say the voluntary guidelines are too severe and would prevent them from marketing even relatively healthy foods to children.  They are now demanding a cost-benefit analysis before allowing the proposal to be finalized forcing deeper deliberation of the initiative.  The administration has tried to stress that the guidelines are strictly voluntary and there are no mandatory costs, but the food and beverage industry continues to respond with strong pushbacks. On the other hand, the administration sees CFBAI’s guidelines as a weak compromise.  The critics say these liberal regulations lack uniformity and are simply not strict enough to change the health of our youth (2).

It is hard to know whether or not these guidelines if put into effect will decrease childhood obesity, but if they are ever enforced they will undoubtedly change the culture of food marketing.  While the IWG used the best science, allowed for public participation, and tried to use the least burdensome methods for achieving the goals, the biggest flaw in my opinion is that they did not have the food and beverage industry at the table with them.

The Institute of Medicine’s report Food Marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity, I think, effectively summarizes the two directions we can take to improve child nutrition; we can either demonize all food marketing to children or we can use the power and money behind industry, combining a little social marketing in with commercial marketing to improve the diets of children (3).  I think we need to work with food marketers utilizing their resources to change the course of our children’s health.

Here are some positive examples of food marketing to kids:


  1. http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/what_we_do.aspx?id=4
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/lawmakers-want-cost-benefit-analysis-on-child-food-marketing-restrictions/2011/12/15/gIQAdqxywO_story.html
  3. McGinnisJM,GootmanJA,KraakVI,eds.Foodmarketingtochildrenand youth: threat or opportunity? Washington D.C., Institute of Medicine, National Academies Press, 2006.

One thought on “Let’s bring some Doritos to the table and talk this out…

  1. kevintmiller says:

    As I read Kristina’s post, I was certainly demonizing, in my mind, the food industry and its marketing firms for having the audacity to market foods that are clearly unhealthy (clear to all but those with their heads in the sand or with much to gain from denying the facts) while also making seemingly ridiculous complaints against the restrictive nature of voluntary measures to help, from this one tiny part of the equation, in the battle against childhood obesity. I wondered what other countries might be doing, since in my opinion there are a multitude of nations that far surpass the United States in being proactive in doing what is best for their people and the world. I found out, through a report by the government of Alberta, Canada, that the US is (sorta) in a group of nations leading the way on this issue 1. These nations, also including 27 countries in the EU, Australia, Canada and Mexico all have in-place similar voluntary “pledge programs” that allow business to choose whether or not they will market to children 1. Two nations, Denmark and New Zealand (wondering if I might want to move to one of these) actually go about telling (in a way) companies what kinds of foods they can and cannot market to children 1. According to the WHO, Denmark uses an enforcement policy based upon complaints – that if an industry markets a product that the public feels unfairly targets children and can adversely affect health, there is a forum monitored by a Food and Drink Federation, which is an industry body 2. If the complaint is deemed legitimate, the company is contacted and apparently strongly encouraged to change marketing or the Federation will not back the company if possible bad publicity emerges. The threat of bad publicity is enough that after 10 complaints have been filed, 7 ads were immediately changed and the other three were changed after a bit more encouragement 2. I thought this was a step in the right direction and while composing this comment, thought to conclude with it.

    However, I have another thought. If we want to improve health, I don’t think it is enough to limit marketing of unhealthy food products to children. I think most people see commercials for carrots or brussels sprouts that attempt to use cool characters or something and cynically think, “Yeah right, that’ll work.” Which is exactly what the food industry wants us to think. I think the risk we run is that everyone knows, when they see a cool carrot commercial, that carrots are trying too hard to use the same techniques Doritos use to market a product that 1 child in a million actually thinks tastes better. If another nacho cheese tortilla chip can’t use the same techniques and compete with Doritos, how can a tube of fiber and beta-carotene? If the food industry wants to go to the extreme of saying that voluntary guidelines are “job killers” then I will go to an extreme myself. Without eliminating all marketing of all clearly unhealthy processed products to everyone, we will not see the health benefits we (maybe?) want to see. Even if we could successfully limit things so that kids saw only marketing for healthy foods, parents still get to see marketing of unhealthy foods that are often cheaper and their children like to eat anyway. And even if parents had the discipline to not buy unhealthy foods for their children, then (as is the case of alcohol, for example) unhealthy foods would be a forbidden fruit (how ironic) that college kids would binge on until a sodium-induced hypertensive death occurs on a college campus every year. Marketing sells more products, but stopping marketing does not eliminate sales.

    1. http://www.health.alberta.ca/documents/cmoh-marketing-unhealthy-foods-children-2011.pdf
    2. http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/MarketingFramework2012.pdf

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