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Advertising Isn't the Obesity Boogeyman

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

With nearly one in three American children overweight, it's easy to question why anyone would oppose voluntary government guidelines that would severely restrict which foods can be marketed to children. What isn't addressed by many is the theory behind these proposed guidelines, crafted by a gang of four government agencies called the Interagency Working Group (IWG), without the support of scientific evidence or advertising statistics.


As the nation's obesity epidemic swells, food and advertising companies are coming under intense scrutiny, taking the blame from local and federal lawmakers for America's expanding waistline. The cornerstone of the IWG guidelines works from the predisposition that obesity is caused by advertising, even though no research supports this theory. The fact is, children are moving less and eating more. According to Health and Human Services data, fewer than 33% of children and adolescents aged 6 to 17 are engaged in 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity, while caloric intake for those aged 6-11 has remained relatively constant since 1974. It's no surprise that obesity rates have more than tripled during the past thirty years, when one also factors in the explosive use of technology devices among children.

No one would argue that the factors contributing to obesity range widely. But blaming America's kid bulge solely on television advertising is folly. Children are watching less television each day and therefore seeing fewer advertisements. From 2004 to 2010, food and beverage advertisements viewed per average child aged 2 to 11 years decreased from 2500 to around 1250 while advertising for cookies, snacks, and other candy decreased between 65%-99%.

It is unclear whether less advertising would lead to less consumption of the foods targeted by IWG guidelines. What is certain is that banning advertising for foods that do not meet these strict nutrition principles will increase prices for consumers. Though critics can find examples throughout the years of corporate advertisers knowingly promoting products with a health risk, the burden remains on companies to stay competitive in our free market, capitalist economy by responding to market pressure. More Americans are leading healthier lifestyles and want their children to do the same, so many food companies are tweaking their products accordingly. Recently, McDonald's added apple slices to its Happy Meals. Over the years, cereal companies have switched to whole grains and cut back on sugar and sodium content. And a group of manufacturers released their own guidelines for adjusting the ingredients of food marketed to children, which they had been working on for years before being targeted by the IWG.


In 2006, a group of 17 food manufacturers formed the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) and released preliminary guidelines for greater self-regulation of food advertising to children. Once again in response to calls from consumers, the CFBAI has debuted a new set of voluntary guidelines to be enacted by 2014, making consistent recommendations that could lead to further changes in foods advertised to children. The new proposed standards don't give the companies a "pass" on improving. One-third of their products would be adjusted for fat, sugar and sodium content under the new guidelines, a step FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz called "a significant advance and exactly the type of initiative the commission had in mind."

What's frustrating is this isn't enough for some critics. Lisa M. Powell, the researcher who authored a study for the University of Illinois at Chicago, commented to Reuters that the bulk of children's advertising is still fast food, and that advertising "makes [a parent’s] job that much tougher."

No matter how glitzy and glamorous food ads can be, rarely do they drive consumers to rush to the grocery store and purchase those marketed products. Moreover, children are not the primary purchasers of food for households. They're not behind the steering wheel, pulling up to the fast-food drive thru window or running into the convenient store for salty or sweet treats. It is parents who decide what to feed their children.


Parenting is tough indeed, but part of the job description is making choices that run contrary to what children may want at any given moment. It's rarely a success story when big government tries to parent - and this issue is no different.

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