A Positive Spin on Food Marketing to Kids

Yesterday, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) have teamed up with Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) in a two-year agreement to help promote fresh fruit and vegetable consumption to kids.

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According to PHA’s website:

The agreement allows PMA’s community of growers, suppliers and retailers to take advantage of the power and influence of the Sesame Street brand without a licensing fee, using characters like Big Bird, Elmo and Abby Cadabby to help convey messages about fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sesame Street characters could be showing up on produce as early as mid-2014.

In her statement, the First Lady cited a recent study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine conducted by researchers at Cornell University. Researchers gave children a choice between eating an apple, a cookie, or both and most kids chose the cookie. Not surprisingly, when the researchers put Elmo stickers on the apples and let the kids select again, the number of kids who chose the apple nearly doubled.

Most often, we see food companies enticing kids with characters on junk food products like sugary cereals and snacks.  Massive marketing budgets allow the food manufacturers to do this, and it works.

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Finally, these same marketing techniques will be used to help parents, instead of undermining them, making it easier to get kids to eat more fruits and veggies.  How great will it be to see beloved children’s characters like Big Bird and Elmo promoting apples and bananas instead of real fruit imposters like Pop-tarts and Popsicles?

Will efforts like this be enough to counteract the billions spent on marketing junk food to children?  Probably not at first, but it is a nice step towards leveling the playing field.  While policies to curb the relentless marketing of unhealthy products have been stymied by Big Food lobbyists, I have to applaud creative ideas like this that can work in congruence with future policy efforts.

Some food policy experts, like Marion Nestle, question the ethicality of marketing to children in any capacity – even if it’s for products we know are good for them.  Studies have shown that children are unable to distinguish marketing from entertainment until at least age 8.  But if marketing such as this poses no harm, and actually serves to benefit children, shouldn’t we be all for it? What do you think?

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Marion Nestle’s message on Food Politics: We need social solutions

Last week, I had the privilege of participating in a presentation from Marion Nestle at New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.  Marion is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU, a renowned food policy advocate, and author of one my favorite books, Food Politics.  Her research examines scientific and socioeconomic influences on food choice, obesity, and food safety, emphasizing the role of food marketing; so you can imagine my excitement about seeing her speak.

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Much of the information that Marion presented was not new to me, however, I still found her messages to be powerful and motivating.

First, Marion outlined how we have gotten ourselves into the obesity epidemic that we currently face:

  • Since 1980, the number of calories available in our food supply have increased to twice the average need per person per day.
  • Dietary intake is up 200 calories per person per day.  This is according to what individuals report, which as we know, is probably lower than what is actually consumed.
  • Federal policy (including corn and soybean subsidies) have lead to processed junk foods that are cheaper than raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Food companies have to report to Wall Street every 90 days.  In this heavily scrutinized and competitive market, companies have to continue to sell more in order to grow, which means increasing the amount of food that consumers take in.
  • Food marketing is loosely regulated (mostly by the food companies themselves),  allowing for a lot of deception and manipulation, especially for our most vulnerable populations — children and minorities.
  • Companies use health claims like “fat-free”, “cholesterol-free”, and “sugar-free” which studies have shown trick consumers into treating the products like they are also “calorie-free”.
  • Junk food products are showing up everywhere: Drug stores, Office supply stores, etc.  There are very few places you can go without at least finding a vending machine filled with candy, snacks and sugary drinks.
  • We live in an environment that encourages us to eat more.  Exercising personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance in this type of environment.
  • Food companies have drastically increased portion sizes of their meals since the 1950’s.  The CDC released a great infographic to display this:

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  • Even if they wanted to, the food industry can’t make any changes to their products and practices if it will negatively affect their bottom line.

So what does all this mean? Should we all just accept defeat in this obesigenic environment? Not according to Marion.

Her solution is twofold:

1) Vote with your fork:   Exercise your power as a consumer.  McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Every time you buy a food product, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it.  Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the opposite is also true.

Even more importantly…

2) Vote with your vote: Changing our food environment requires social solutions, not just personal responsibility.  We need to educate consumers through menu labeling, media campaigns and honest food labels.  We need restrictions like nutrition standards for schools and foods marketed to children.  We need taxes on harmful products like sugary drinks to deter over-consumption.  We need to restructure government subsidies to  make healthful, unprocessed foods cheaper.  We even need the occasional ban for dangerous industry-created substances like trans-fats.

While the concepts are simple, actually implementing them is much more challenging.  For starters, we need legislators and policy makers that are more interested in public health than corporate health, and a constituency to back them up.

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If you haven’t read any of Marion Nestle’s work before, I highly recommend checking out her blog. Michael Pollan ranked her as the #2 most powerful foodie in America (after Michelle Obama), and Mark Bittman ranked her #1 in his list of foodies to be thankful for.  I couldn’t agree more.