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Michele Simon Susan Linn
In response to the public outcry over the negative impacts of junk food marketing to children, food companies have started using popular media characters to market “healthy” foods to children. These products include fruits and vegetables, as well as processed food. So we now have Campbell’s Disney Princess “Healthy Kids” soup, Kellogg’s Scooby-Doo! cereal (with less sugar) and others.
But is this really progress?
The developmental vulnerabilities of children, along with the legal, ethical and political pitfalls of encouraging the food industry to target kids, make marketing food to children harmful regardless of nutritional content.
Children are Especially Vulnerable to Advertising
Researchers and advocates for children’s health agree that advertising junk food to children is effective. One 30-second commercial can influence the food preferences of children as young as age two. For young children, branding even trumps taste. Preschool children report that junk food in McDonald’s packaging taste better than food in plain wrapping—even if it’s the same food. Similar studies show the same results for food packaging featuring media characters.
Research demonstrates that marketing any product to children under age 12 is inherently deceptive. Unlike adults, young children do not have the cognitive capacity to fully understand the purpose of advertising. Very young children cannot even distinguish between a TV program and a commercial. Until the age of about eight, they don’t really understand the concept of selling and they tend to believe what they see.
Moreover, only 40 percent of 11 and 12 year olds have a full understanding of persuasive intent—that every aspect of advertising is designed to convince them to do things they might not do otherwise. This makes children especially vulnerable to deception by hyperbole, puffery and other common advertising techniques.
Marketing Healthy Food Undermines Healthy Child Development
Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort. Marketing to children does more than sell products—it inculcates habits and behaviors. Marketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste or good nutrition.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Children’s health depends on more than diet—their social, emotional and cognitive nourishment are also important. Popular media icons used to sell kids veggies also market myriad other products, including junk food, junk toys and screen media. Research shows that, among other harms, such commercialism inhibits children’s creative play—the foundation of learning, creativity, constructive problem solving and the capacity to initiate and complete tasks and projects—which is essential to a truly healthy childhood. And excessive screen time is linked to problems ranging from unhealthy eating, sleep disturbance and poor school performance.
All Marketing to Children is Inherently Misleading
While the food industry claims it has a First Amendment right to advertise to children, the law says otherwise. Free speech is not a blank check; it has limits. Current federal law actually prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising. Similarly, false or misleading advertising is not allowed under most state consumer protection statutes.
Marketing to children does not get First Amendment protection because it is inherently misleading. If a young child cannot even understand the purpose of an ad, then marketing anything to that child is both unfair and deceptive. The nutritional content of the product being marketed is irrelevant.
With enough political will, lawmakers could pass new laws banning marketing to children without running afoul of the First Amendment. Such policies are in effect in several other countries, and have not caused the economic sky to fall.
Calling for governmental endorsement of marketing “healthy” food to children potentially undermines these legal theories, which we need to preserve as we build a larger movement of advocates to protect children in a more effective and meaningful way.
We Can’t Beat the Food Industry at its Own Game
Finally, the food industry is happy to play along when advocates call for the marketing of “healthier” food to children. Corporate lobbyists have invented a voluntary self-regulation scheme to convince politicians and the public they’ve got it covered with nutrition standards that allegedly protect children.
But as many of these same advocates have rightly pointed out again and again, this non-system is a dismal failure. Even the federal government couldn’t persuade the food industry to improve its voluntary guidelines.
By begging and pleading with the food industry to improve how it markets to children, instead of working to end food marketing to children entirely, we are continuing to endorse a failed system in which industry gets to set the rules, break them whenever it pleases, and then take credit for doing the right thing. The CEO of McDonald’s recently claimed with a straight face that his company does not market to children. To bolster his case, he pointed to milk and apple slices in Happy Meals. This is just the sort of twisted logic that results from advocates asking industry to set nutrition standards for food marketing to children.
Less sugar in Scooby-Doo cereal and more apple slices in Happy Meals will not make children healthier. Instead of settling for such crumbs, advocates should take a stronger stand to protect children and demand that corporations stop engaging altogether in the unethical practice of marketing to children. Yes, this is a Herculean task and yes, it will take a massive movement to accomplish. Let’s get to work. The cost to children is too high if we don’t.
On Oct. 11, Disney announced a significant new paper policy that applies to the company’s extensive operations and those of its licensees, and means they will be eliminating paper connected to the destruction of endangered forests and animals.
The policy, the culmination of two years of conversations between Disney executives and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), establishes Disney’s leadership among household brands including Staples, Mattel, Scholastic, Tiffany and Kroger that have moved to source paper more responsibly to help slow the rate at which the world’s most precious forests are being pulped.
“Rainforests are more valuable left standing than being pulped for paper,” said Rebecca Tarbotton, executive director of Rainforest Action Network, which worked with Disney on the policy. “Disney is adding its voice to the growing chorus of companies demonstrating that there’s no need to sacrifice endangered forests in Indonesia or elsewhere for the paper we use every day.”
To date, nine top U.S. publishers have worked with RAN to announce rainforest commitments, including Scholastic, Hachette, Pearson/Penguin, Candlewick Press, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Macmillan, Random House, Simon & Schuster and now Disney.
Disney is the world’s biggest publisher of children’s books and magazines. The new paper policy will be applied to the Company’s entire global operations and those of its supply chain. The commitment includes Disney’s media networks, theme parks, resorts, cruise ships, and all its product packaging, copy paper and book publishing as well as the 3,700 licensees that use Disney characters. It will also influence the operations of 25,000 factories in more than 100 countries that produce Disney products, including 10,000 in China.
“The paper policy is an example of how Disney conducts business in an environmentally and socially responsible way, and demonstrates the Company’s commitment to creating a lasting, positive impact on ecosystems and communities worldwide,” said Dr. Beth Stevens, senior vice president, Disney Corporate Citizenship, Environment and Conservation.
Disney’s commitment sets out to ensure the Company’s operations and those of its licensees minimize their consumption of paper and maximize their use of recycled content. The commitment also means Disney will not be sourcing from controversial paper giants Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings (APRIL). APP is reportedly the third largest paper company in the world.
Disney’s commitment will have a particularly important impact in Indonesia, the primary place where tropical rainforests are still being cut down for paper. The pulp and paper industry is one of the main drivers of the estimated 2.5 million acres of rainforest cut down per year in Indonesia.
Lafcadio Cortesi, the Asia director at Rainforest Action Network, said: “Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world due, in part, to pulp and paper giants like Asia Pulp and Paper and APRIL. Disney’s commitment will reduce the demand for paper made at the expense of rainforests while creating incentives for improved forest management and green growth.”
Indonesia has some of the most biologically and culturally diverse forests in the world, home to iconic species like the Sumatran tiger, of which only 400 animals remain. Indonesia is ranked third in greenhouse gas emissions, just behind China and the U.S., due to this rampant deforestation.
RAN began working with Disney in 2010 when lab results found that Disney children’s books were printed with rainforest fiber. RAN will continue to work with Disney to ensure effective implementation of its paper policy.
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