My daughter Samantha was all of 11 months old when she pointed to a Dunkin Donuts sign and yelled “Doughnuts!” She was about 18 months when she pointed to a box of Reeses Puffs and declared, “chocolatey peanut butter.”
Samantha was certainly not an early reader or a child prodigy. Instead, she was an occasional television viewer who quickly picked up on the icons and messages flashing before her eyes. It showed me just how powerful food advertising could be, even to a young toddler just learning to speak.
Advertising unhealthy foods to children has become a serious concern in the U.S., where nearly 20 percent of kids are obese. According to a recent report in The New York Times, the government is attempting to rein in food advertising geared to children. But the effort has been slowed by strong opposition from the food industry and concerns that proposed standards are overly strict.
Last December, federal agencies issued a preliminary proposal. Among the proposed restrictions: cereals could have only eight grams of sugar per serving in order to be advertised on TV. The food industry balked, saying the proposed requirements would ban virtually all the food advertising targeting audiences under the age of 18. Imposing restrictions on advertising also opens up the messy question of free speech and whether the government is overstepping its bounds. Regulators appear to now be taking a step back before releasing a new report, which was due last week.
The food industry has tried to take matters into their own hands. Under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was created by the Better Business Bureau in 2006, individual companies have been drawing up their own criteria for what’s suitable to be advertised to kids. The initiative involves 16 major companies that produce three-quarters of the food and beverage ads now seen on TV.
The website says the group has agreed to devote at least 50 percent of their advertising to children under 12 to promoting “healthier or better for you dietary choices and/or to messages that encourage good nutrition or healthy lifestyles.” Four participants – Cadbury, Coca Cola, Hershey’s and Mars – have even agreed to do no advertising targeting children 12 and under, according to the Times article.
Some critics say it isn’t enough. In the meantime, children are still clamoring for sugary cereals, junk food and fast food and seeing ads that entice them to consume these foods. Will there ever come a day when we see fruits and vegetables glorified on TV?
That’s some food for thought.