In short, many parents and children’s health advocates are opposed to the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, and particularly the use of cartoon characters to do so, whether these be a media tie-in like Dora, Shrek, or the Little Einsteins, or original, as in the Candyland board game. If cigarettes cannot be advertised on television or marketed to minors, then, the argument goes, junk food, which carries just as grave a risk for obesity and all its related diseases, should not be thus marketed either. There is little difference, they say, between Joe Camel and Toucan Sam. (Breakfast cereal is a particularly obvious offender.)
There are at least two sides to the story, in the United Kingdom and the United States. I confess to not knowing all the ins and outs of the former case, but in November 2006 the regulatory agency Ofcom banned advertising of junk food during children’s viewing hours (before 9pm). According to one source, this left health groups unhappy that a full ban had not been implemented, but on the other hand it had sufficient teeth to also anger advertising groups. Details of the ban’s specific restrictions—i.e. what qualifies as junk food—are available in a CBBC news article posted at the time. Bringing things up to the present, I believe the prognosis is good for the health of Britain’s children, but bad for television producers, who have allegedly lost a major source—if not the major source—of their funding. That at least is the view of Simon Parson, head of BBC Scotland’s children’s programming, as explained in this fairly recent Sunday Herald article.
Here in America there have been advances in regulation, government-mandated and self-imposed, but nothing as drastic as the British model. One of the foremost advocates against advertising junk food to children has been the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and this Nutrition Action Healthletter editorial by the Center’s director Michael Jacobsen (from the July/August issue) discusses the work of that group and other advocates like the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood. The CSPI had threatened litigation against Kellogg over its advertising, and in June got the cereal-maker to establish a level of self-regulation, mandating that all foods advertised in prime children-viewing times meet certain “nutrition criteria,” which Jacobsen describes in detail.
Kudos to Kellogg for taking that move, although the battle is not yet won. Another August article, this time from Business Week, describes how Internet advertising is requiring a new approach from regulators and public health advocates. While government regulation is important and encouraging, in the end—or in the meantime—it is up to parents to observe the commercials their children watch as much as the shows, and then to exercise strict control in the grocery store, where flashy boxes always seem to placed at eye-level for short people (not a coincident, by the way: lots of money is going into where items get placed on grocery store shelves). Just the other day I myself grabbed some Dora the Explorer fruit snacks when met with those large puppy dog eyes my daughter is so good at; at the very least I could have bought the store brand and saved a buck, let alone buy some dried fruit or raisins.
It is possible, though, and it doesn’t mean banning trick-or-treating (remember, a balanced diet). I recently mentioned my strong childhood desire to consume Smurfberry Crunch, and the same can be said for C3PO Cereal, Count Chocula, Apple Jacks, Cap’n Crunch, and virtually anything else presweetened. My parents had a strict rule that presweetened cereal could only be eaten on Saturday mornings; during the week we had hot breakfasts, and on Sundays and off days we had Corn Flakes and regular Cheerios. Was I deprived? No. (And I did learn one can actually pour honey on regular Cheerios for a tasty alternative to the presweetened Honey Nut variety). Did it build character? Sure, although that’s not a great trial. More importantly, was I healthy and am I now, as a parent, grateful for my parents’ example? Yes, and yes. I didn’t start to get flabby until I moved out on my own. That’s an example I can’t afford to set for Loretta.
(Here, by the way, is another of Jacobsen’s editorials on the advances of Britain’s food labeling laws, which, as in most things, are more advanced than America's. Also, I’ll be foregoing an Anniversary Friday posting this week in favor of trick-or-treating, so I’ll be writing again next week.)