Wednesday, September 10, 2008

"J" for Junk - Rating Junk Food Advertising to Kids?

Soft drink manufacturers spend an average of $20 per American teenager in advertising. That’s a lot of money to spend to convince a kid that your brand of high fructose corn syrup is better (or cooler or hipper) than another brand of high fructose corn syrup.

Such astonishing outlays of advertising cash have promoted the FTC to (again) look into junk food advertising aimed at kids (as they did in the 1970s and 1980s - both times being squashed by aggressive Congressional lobbying from manufacturers of soda, cereal, and fast food).

To get an idea of the scale of the marketing of junk food to kids, take a look at the recent FTC report on the topic ( and also check out the award-winning obesity documentary, Killer at Large ( for a startling “behind the scenes” look at the nation’s obesity epidemic and the role advertising plays (you’ll see Shrek selling everything from Twinkies to Happy Meals).

The FTC continues to call on food and beverage manufacturers and marketers to “do more” to regulate themselves - but many feel that this call for self-regulation is too passive. The soda and cupcake lobby, not surprisingly, feels that any government regulation of predatory advertising practices aimed at kids infringes their First Amendment rights to advertise poison to children.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly agree that there needs to be some “middle road” between encouraging companies to market healthier foods and restrictions on marketing certain types of foods to certain demographics. You have to agree that spending $20 per American teen to market soda is excessive.

Will the government step in and impose advertising regulations on food and beverage companies? If history is any guide, the answer is NO. As we documented in the Killer at Large film, efforts by the FTC to limit junk food advertising to kids has been viciously beaten back by aggressive lobbying on every occasion it has been proposed over the past 3 decades. The remote possibility exists, however, that the next Presidential administration and Congress will actually give a damn about the abysmal health and diet of the average American child, which may spur them into regulatory action if the companies fail to take action.

How do you encourage food companies to limit junk food advertising and increase the development and marketing of more healthful foods? YOU BUY THE HEALTHIER STUFF! Let’s face it - Junk food sells because people eat it - and eat LOTS of it.

Why do they eat it? Because it tastes good.
Why do they buy it? Because it’s cheap.

Would people eat less junk food if they knew that it made them fatter, and dumber, and closer to disease and death? How about if every package of junk food was required to carry a RATING sticker (like for movies or video games) - so your Twinkies would carry a big black “J” for “Junk” and your Pepsi would carry a big black “F” for “Fat” - would that get us to consume these products in reduced amounts?

How can we get junk food consumption to become socially discouraged? When does being seen at the fast food drive-thru window become as undesirable as being seen at the adult video store? When does ordering a Coke with your lunch become as disgusting as picking your nose in front of friends? Junk food has become such an ingrained part of our obese culture and nothing short of a cultural shift will be able to change the dismal public health future that we are all facing (not the mention the obvious “personal health future” that most of us are facing on a day-to-day basis).

Do something. See Killer at Large. Get motivated.

Thanks for reading,

Shawn Talbott, PhD
I also blog on a daily basis at: (about various health and wellness topics) (about the pros and cons of dietary supplements) (about weight loss, metabolism, and feeling better) (about traditional Asian medicine, or TAM) (about nutrition for endurance athletes) (about metabolism, nutrition, exercise, and energy)

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