Is a Nutritionism Approach to Marketing to Children the Best We Can Do?

Last week at a childhood obesity conference, I participated in an important panel to discuss what has become a controversial strategy among some advocates for children’s health: calling on industry to market “healthy” food to children.

As Susan Linn and I explained in our recent article, any marketing to children is deceptive and harmful; it doesn’t matter what the product is.

Some advocates argue that as long as we are up against such powerful countervailing forces, why not use cartoon characters to get kids to eat their veggies? But that isn’t really the heart of the debate: if the only issue was marketing fruit and vegetables to kids and if the only people engaging in such tactics were parents, I would be far less concerned. But let’s not confuse well-meaning adults trying to get kids to eat right with profit-driven multi-national corporations targeting children to hook them on a lifetime of consumerism.

The real problem for me lies with the advocacy strategy of begging industry to set better nutrition standards on how they market to children. The food industry already claims to follow its own voluntary nutrition standards for how it markets to children. As many others have concluded, this system is a failure because it’s self-serving, full of loopholes, and to put it bluntly, the nutrition standards suck. But instead of calling for an end to marketing food to children altogether, some advocates want to simply make this system better, despite a recent failed effort by the federal government to accomplish this same task.

This approach is doomed because it keeps industry in charge, where they excel. It also accepts the current processed food paradigm, resulting in the absurd situation of advocates applauding Kellogg for “lower sugar” Scooby-Doo! cereal. (That’s the actual name of the product.)

As Marion Nestle points out, six grams of sugar per serving makes the product eligible for the federal Women’s, Infants, and Children nutrition program. In other words, it’s aimed at young children who are the most vulnerable to marketing: up to age five. Nestle further explains how Kellogg’s “Scooby-Doo! brand is directly competing with General Mills’ Dora Explorer cereal for the lucrative WIC market, one that should amount to nearly $7 billion in 2013,” so “cereal companies want to be sure they are in that market.”

Then are advocates essentially encouraging companies to engage in a Scooby-Doo versus Dora battle to exploit children’s emotional ties to their favorite cartoon characters? But since it’s only six grams of sugar per serving, we should consider this a step in the right direction? Reasonable people can disagree on whether or not a product with less sugar is healthier but such a comparison is a yet another example of narrowly-framed “nutritionism” that neglects a more holistic view of food and health. As registered dietitian Andy Bellatti told me last December when I interviewed him about the federal government’s report on alleged industry progress on food marketing to children:

Especially troubling is how this report fosters the illusion that most children’s cereals are a healthful choice, with the only problem being high sugar content. In reality, most children’s cereals are nutritionally empty. Their vitamins and minerals are added during processing, after the grains (ironically) have been stripped of their natural nutrients. Intrinsically, these cereals offer very little nutrition because they are mainly composed of processed grain starch.

As long as we allow the processed food industry to determine what products are even available to discuss, the universe of options remains extremely limited. That’s because food manufacturers by definition make money selling processed food. They don’t sell real food, that’s just not their business model. So within this limited processed food universe, some advocates have determined the best we can do is beg industry to market slightly less junky junk food to children.

But is that really the best we can do? Don’t children deserve better?

Another argument raised during the panel last week was that it’s impossible politically to get a law passed that would ban all food marketing to children, so let’s work on what’s feasible. I agree, this is an impossible task. Right now. But we really have no idea what the future holds. If you asked most gay rights advocates even a few years ago if they thought the U.S. Supreme Court would rule in favor of gay marriage, they would say no. But times change. We have a responsibility to fight for what’s right, not just for the present, but for the future.

Moreover, enacting new laws is not the only option for forcing corporations to stop exploiting children. We can engage in more meaningful corporate campaigns—ones that don’t just settle for crumbs. Better campaigns like Retire Ronald from Corporate Accountability International, which calls on McDonald’s to stop exploiting children altogether.

We can celebrate and encourage more retailers to take the bold stand that MOM’s Organic Market did earlier this year when it just said no to all licensed character marketing aimed at children (with no exceptions for “healthy” food) because as the chain’s CEO Scott Nash put it: “The ends don’t justify the means. Marketing to children is wrong, no matter what is being marketed.”

Pushing industry to do a better job at marketing food to children isn’t the answer. This is a game we cannot win. Let’s stop playing games with the food industry and start protecting children.

One Response to “Is a Nutritionism Approach to Marketing to Children the Best We Can Do?”

  1. Michele:

    Since you were kind enough to cite my Lunch Tray piece above, I wanted to respond here. I agree with you that the use of cartoon characters on carrot sticks or edamame isn’t the “heart of the debate” — but it *was* the focus of your last piece, i.e., that we should never use such marketing tactics, even to promote the consumption by kids of healthy food. And that’s the particular argument to which I was responding.

    But yes, I agree that the real issue here is predatory child-directed marketing by the food industry for almost uniformly unhealthful foods. And I also agree that most self-regulation schemes — such as the CFBAI, in which food manufacturers each set their own sometimes laughable standards for what constitutes “healthy” food — have proven toothless (Your readers might want to look at the the hair-raising photo gallery here: http://bit.ly/dNCo1K).

    But unlike you, I am not optimistic that we will pass a blanket children’s ad ban in this country any time soon. (Though I sincerely hope your optimism is justified and I will certainly lend my support to such an effort.) That being the case, I’m not willing to reject out of hand ALL efforts to address this problem by the private sector. I believe the recent voluntary ad restrictions adopted by Disney, for example, are a real step forward and I have not seen any nutrition expert say (in so many words) that Disney’s self-adopted nutrition standards “suck.” (http://bit.ly/L9VCEQ)

    In the end, on all of these issues, I’m very much a pragmatist. I think it’s OK to both try to change the political climate while at the same time also looking for ways to work within the existing one. As parents grow ever more informed about dietary/obesity issues, they will financially reward the companies that get it right.

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