What's Wrong With the Government Limiting Food Marketing to Kids?

I thought I would weigh in on the recent proposed Federal Trade Commission's rules for limiting food marketing to children.

To me this is a fascinating debate. One one side you've got food writers like Marion Nestle arguing (somewhat predictably) that the new rules don't go far enough. Other bloggers are a bit more circumspect and are willing to consider abstract but important aspects of the debate, like unintended consequences, free speech issues and so on. And, sadly (uh, and also somewhat predictably), over at the Huffington Post we have a totally information-free post in which the author jokes about playing games on the Lucky Charms website.

Okay. As usual with any political issue, you ain't gonna find much nuance out there. Most people have agendas that they're pushing, and those agendas typically come from one of two extremes: YAY! More regulation! Corporations are evil! or BOO! get the government out of my life and get off my lawn!

For my part, sure, I would love to see less advertising in general. And long-time CK readers especially know about my particularly insane hatred of overpriced, hyper-sweetened cereals--a food marketed to children like no other, coincidentally. So, yes, I have a bit of a personal axe to grind in this debate too.

And heck, making the contra-argument on this subject is a little like being against puppies. It is not an easy position to take. (Wait, don't you care about kids? You're in favor of evil corporations taking advantage of our children, you bad, bad person you?)

To be honest, I don't really know where I stand on this issue. So instead of advocating a position, I'm going to ask you, readers, a few open-ended questions, in the hopes that we can collectively foster an open-minded and nuanced debate of our own.

I've said this before and I'll say it again, the readers here at Casual Kitchen are as articulate and thoughtful as anybody can find anywhere (did I mention for the millionth time how grateful I am for this?). With that in mind, what are your thoughts on the following questions?

1) Is it children who actually buy these foods? (PS: This is a bit of a trick question.)

2) Will rules like these actually change peoples' behavior?

3) What are the possible unintended consequences that might result from enforcing guidelines like this? (Keeping in mind that it's notoriously difficult to perceive a law's unintended consequences when those consequences are unlikely for you.)

4) What are the free speech issues involved here?

5) Is it appropriate to hand responsibility for our food choices over to our government? And to what extent is it appropriate that we give away our power to make choices in the face of advertising--or in the face of our children's demands for certain foods?

6) Are we creating rules to make ourselves feel like we've solved a problem?

Readers, here's your chance to sound off--on any or all of these questions. What do you think?

Related Posts:
What's Your Favorite Consumer Empowerment Tip?
Companies vs. Consumers: A Manifesto
A Tale of Two Breakfasts
Food Militancy, and Food Moderation

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The Calico Cat said...

Just a couple answers.
1. I think that parents (consumers) buy children's cereal thinking that it is what children want & to avoid crying in the morning.

2. Rules "never" change behavior. Once upon a time ago, cigarettes were advertised on TV - people still smoke.

3. I don't see any. Big Tobacco can't advertise on TV & they are doing just fine. (nod & wink)

4. I have a hard time with this one too. I've made the tobacco claim twice & there is the fact that yearly PETA wants to put an in your fact ad on TV during the superbowl & they are regularly denied the opportunity. But in their case, that night be the point. I remember the denial & I would have "never" even seen let alone remembered the actual ad. So there is some regulation already going on...

5. I don't see the connection between advertising & government control of our choices. Even if they do not advertise sugary cereal a on the TV, I can still buy it. As it is I occasionally buy a box of store brand sugary cereal.

6. YES, I can not say it with enough emphasis, YES. (I am having a hard time thinking of a Governmental rule that does not do this.)

The Calico Cat said...

My point on #5 was that store brand cereals are not advertised. So that there is not a correlation between advertising & ones ability to make the purchase.

Eleni said...

Hello, I'm new round these parts but this debate has hit on one of my pet peeves so I thought I'd muscle in with my two pence :)

I agree with the above: parents buy this crap to stop their children complaining. I'm not a parent so it is easy for me to say: YOU decide what your children eat. End of. "No, we're not buying that because it's bad for you." Is that so hard? Here's an idea: turn the TV off.

In terms of freedom of speech, you Americans are much more in tune to this sort of thing than we Brits, but in my opinion no form of advertising should be banned. We see hundreds of adverts for stuff that we don't want/need/end up buying: I can quite happily tune out adverts for men's products, or nappies, because they don't apply to me. Surely the principle is that, even though you might not like what somebody is selling, you have to respect their right to sell it? Unless a law is passed limiting the amount of sugar you're allowed to put into cereal, then I say let them get on with it.

Have you seen 'Thank You For Smoking'? Fantastic film which very neatly addresses this issue, except for the tobacco, alcohol, and firearms indudtries.

Julia said...

I think Eleni has hit on the right idea... it's not the advertising but the underlying problems. Parents need to exercise control over their children if they don't want them eating sugary cereal. They need to teach kids to see advertisements for what they are.

If we are going to fight this obesity epidemic in the US, then we must reinstate recess, increase affordable access to healthy all-natural foods, and decrease subsidies that keep the cost of unhealthy foods artificially cheap.

The Calico Cat said...

I completely agree & for what it's is worth (even though I do not feel personally attacked) my toddler has never seen TV (except in passing while we are out & about) & we only buy Cheerios/Joes Os for him.

Which is to say that I agree with Eleni about parental controls & I feed my child based on Ellyn Sattler's Division of Responsibility. In a nutshell, As the parent I am responsible for what gets presented to be eaten & when (& where) & my it is my son's responsibility to eat it.
No cajoling, arguing, switching, etc. & No influence from advertisments!

Cynthia said...

As the parent of a teenager, I'm only going to answer 1&2. When he was little he got what I bought for him (mostly Cheerio's*) and he ate it. I will not deny that on someday's McD's wasn't a lifesaver. McNuggets, tea and 3 hours in the play area saved a lot of sanity! But now that he is older, he is making his own food choices and with his own money. I take some pride in the fact that he likes Kung Pao chicken over a burger and can whip up a decent Italian dinner when he wants to. The fact he can do all these things is because *WE*, his parents made good choices 10 or more years ago. And that is the crux of the argument, we won't see the fallout from outlawing child directed ads for years yet, if any. Parents must take an active role it teaching their children but since we aren't given any kind of clue on how to do it, we just sort of muddle a long and hope for the best.
As for 2: No, see the 18th and 21st Amendments.
Daniel, thanks for asking the knotty questions.

*which are necessary for certain male training rituals.

Kathryne said...

Many adults are also ill-informed or unwilling to make healthier choices; I think that this is mostly a set of rules so that people can feel better about having done something. Targeting the makers of popular products does not make consumers better-informed or more concerned.

As for unintended consequences, I have no idea what could arise from the law as it is voluntary but I do think that it becomes tricky for the government to limit speech from the makers of 'harmful' products. I think we can all agree that what the government considers to be a healthy diet is not necessarily the best choice.

In short, I believe that the regulation of advertising side-steps the issue of what kids are actually being fed, whether at school(a government-regulated area!) or at home.

Jen said...

If I had posted this two years ago I suspect my answer would have been different, but as it is I have a 1.5 year old and my views on these issues are definitely shifting. Being a parent is by far the hardest thing I have EVER done in my life. I spend an inordinate amount of time shopping for food, preparing it, trying to get my son to eat, cleaning up after he does, etc. Good for parents whose kids never see TV or encounter processed foods, but I freely admit I am not one of those parents. (When you only have 45 minutes to get dinner cooked, eaten, and cleaned up every night, you just don't have time to spend constantly moving a kid out from under your feet while you're in the kitchen. At least I can't make it work. TV occupies him for 25 minutes and allows us all to have a home cooked meal. I make no apologies for that.)

And already my son is in daycare and sees and wants lots of junk food that other kids have, or he sees his cousins eating crap. Again, if I could stay home with him I could only expose him to the kinds of foods I want him to eat, but I can't stay home with him, and besides we'd still go to birthday parties, family events, grandma's house, etc where he'd see junk food or TV.

So yeah, I do wish that there would be more regulation on the ads for kids to help me limit the exposure my son gets to them. I used to work at an academic library purchasing materials for marketing, and believe me a spectacular amount of ink has been printed identifying all the ways to manipulate kids (and adults, too) into buying junk food. It used to turn my stomach sometimes when I'd read the stats about how effective ads can be on kids. (And I have a strong suspicion that even if you think your kids hardly see any ads, they still see a few and are just as vulnerable to the manipulation. And it IS manipulation--it's not just a presentation of facts that you can objectively make up your mind about. It influences your thoughts in ways you don't realize.)

I don't really think this is a free speech issue--marketing isn't speech in the same way personal opinions or ideas are. Already there are rules about truth in advertising. I see limiting food marketing to kids as an extension of that line of thinking. I agree it's very difficult to understand unintended consequences because you can't really understand the complex web that ties issues together until the web becomes unbalanced. I do think it would make marketers dig even deeper to find new ways to approach kids, which may or may not negate any benefits from the original laws!

That said, personally I'd prefer to see more initiatives to improve the quality of the food, to educate parents and kids about healthy choices, and to make healthy food more accessible (both in terms of physical access as well as barriers like time, finances, etc). I think that would do much more to improve kids' health than limiting advertising. This is a systemic problem that can't be solved by targeting only one component.

raquel said...

long time reader here:

I will answer number one only, since I deal with it every day.
Of course the parents buy it...to shut up the kids. Every time I go to the supermarket with my kids it's the same story over and over. "I want this and that" with all the tantrums that follow. Most of the times (i'd say 75%) we leave without buying snacks or treats, but i'm the minority. Most parents will buy some junk food every time they take the kids to the store.

And, as you know kids, they never stop whining, so for the parent who wants to do the right thing (healthier, cheaper, and teaches the value of 'no') it's a never ending battle. I see all the other parents give in the moment they walk in and have sugar-induced good behavior while my kids are on the floor shrieking and I'm pretending not to hear them.

To make the right choices can be hard, but it's even harder when it seems that the whole world is against you.

amybeth said...

Say no to your kids or here's an idea: turn off your TV.

JanetC said...

In general, I don't believe that the government should have the right to control what you buy/consume or what you see advertised. People have the right to eat what they want, even if it will kill them. And even if there was no advertisements for sweet cereals, kids would learn about them (mostly from other kids). Let me give you a slightly off-color example: I had not talked about the details of birth control or sex in any significant way (other than the usual "its where babies come from) to my son when he was in the fourth grade. Yet that year he came home one day and announced that "I am never getting any girl pregnant because I know how to use a condom" After I picked myself up from the floor I asked him, "Oh, and how is that?" So he proceeded to tell me in graphic and accurate detail. I then asked who taught him this, and he informed me that it was the kid who lived next door. So if kids can learn THAT from their neighbors and friends, surely they will learn about food that may not be good for you. All we can do as parents is teach them correctly and make sure that they are given plenty of healthy choices at home.

BTW, I do believe that giving healthy choices is a far better alternative than just banning certain foods. Kids learn by example. The banned substance is the one that is most craved. If you say "No sweet cereals EVER" your children will be bound to sneak it when they go next door. As is the case with most aspects of parenting, education is the key. Let them know what you prefer they eat, and why. Discuss commercials on television, and let your children know how and why they are designed to tempt them.

A final parental anecdote: When my son was two or three he would keep saying "I want to go to Donald's" "I want to visit Donald" I had no idea who Donald was, and kept asking at the preschool if he had a friend named Donald. It all became clear to me one day when we drove past the Golden Arches and Ed squealed in delight: "Donald's!!" (Advertisements are unavoidable: unless your child is denied all access to television AND the internet...even then he'll see it somewhere....)

Daniel said...

These are excellent insights so far.

I'll ask one follow-up question that keys off of what many of you are saying:

If it's not the advertising but the underlying problems (parents giving into their children's demands, people unwilling to make healthy choices, advertising is a symptom, not a cause, etc), then why would we enable the government to step in here--especially when they are stepping in on the wrong side of the equation? Where is the logic in that?


Milehimama @ Mama Says said...

I am a mother. One of my children cannot have food dyes, so I am a mother who is very involved with what my children eat. I write about "real food" and petition companies to remove HFCS and dyes.

And I think this is a horrible, terrible, no good idea.

I am adamantly opposed to the government tellling us what we can and cannot say to people. (And corporations are citizens, too.)

Cereal is not an illegal product. Making websites with games is not a violation of truth in advertising laws.

Hands off!

The elitism and paternalism inherent in this demand is astounding, btw. The government is going to dictate what can be advertised, because parents don't have enough sense to turn off the TV if they perceive it to be a problem? The government is going to "protect" kids from big, bad Froot Loops commercials because their parents buy the cereal?

It ABSOLUTELY is a free speech issue.