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Advertising to Children: Harmless Fundraising or Obesity Threat?

Remove; Image from MorgueFileWe’ve all seen them, whether it was when we ourselves were kids or just last week:  Advertisements featuring happy, healthy kids running into the kitchen for a meal or snack.   It sounds harmless enough until you factor in that many of these ads are pushing items like sugary cereal, drinks with copious amount of food dyes and other items with way more than the daily recommended amount of fat, calories, etc.   While that may be bad enough, it gets worse when you realize that many (if not most) of the commercials for sweetened or fatty food and drink are geared towards school-aged children.  The Federal Trade Commission stated that, “The food industry spent more than $1.6 billion in 2006 alone to market messages to kids promoting foods that often are high in calories and low in nutrition.”  Taking into consideration that one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, what can be done to make sure that future generations have a fighting chance against food advertisers?

In recent years, there has been at least a glimmer of hope on this front in the form of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign.   Although her terms are voluntary, she has put out a plea to food manufacturers to reexamine how they market to kids up to age 17.  Mrs. Obama gave this message to manufacturers saying, “It’s going to be so critical to increase marketing for foods that are healthy. And if there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you. You know what gets their attention…You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store.”  According to Obama Foodorama, Mrs. Obama’s Principle can be broken down into two areas.

1)      Food advertising and marketing aimed at children up to age 17 should encourage them to choose foods that “make meaningful contributions to a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans.”

2)      Saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be “limited to minimize the negative impact on children’s health and weight.”

In order to really make a difference, the Federal Trade Commission is shooting for all of the food industry to join in with the saturated fat, trans fat and sugar guidelines by 2016 and the sodium guidelines by 2021.  A forum will take place to discuss the Principles on Tuesday, May 24 with public comments being considered.

But while Mrs. Obama’s Principles are a huge step forward in admitting that there is a problem and making an attempt to fix it, it’s crucial to know that at the same time children are now being faced with advertisements in a place that is unavoidable: schools.   Because kids must attend school, advertisers have begun targeting the education system as a way to gain a captive audience while kicking a little money back for learning costs.

While some school advertising could be inconspicuous and never even seen by students (According to Time Magazine, a Massachussets school has been approached about placing advertising on the roof for planes to see while passing over), most are right within the eyesight and impressionable minds of students.  One of the biggest proponents of this, according to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, is a program seen in many schools each morning called Channel One.   The Center says that Channel One currently reaches 8 million middle and high school students each day, showing two minutes of advertising during a single news broadcast.  And while many would think of encouraging kids to watch the news every day as educational, it may actually be costing more than it is worth.  According to a 1998 study on the Analysis of Commercialism in Education, it was found that $26,333 is spent by the average secondary school on just the commercials shown during a year’s worth of Channel One programming.

Advertising in schools isn’t all just on the TV though.  In school districts like the one in St. Francis, Minnesota, 10-15% of the lockers are covered in ads.  In many townships, extra money has been awarded for struggling programs like art and music by putting ads on the sides of school buses (sometimes up to $1,000 per bus).   There have even been lessons to teach students about wildlife and architecture promoted by companies such as Exxon and McDonald’s.

In these cases, it seems there are only a few choices.  Instead of waiting for Mrs. Obama’s Principles to become a reality, there is  always the opportunity for communities to rally together to ensure local schools are not promoting products, especially those for foods that could lead to increased obesity and related health issues.   It’s also imperative to explore all options of raising money when a district is presented with the option of combining advertising and education.  Finally, it’s important to educate children about eating healthy and making decisions based on that instead of a commercial or signage.

Are unhealthy foods used in your or your child’s school?  What are your thoughts on advertising to children both in and out of school?  Please share your comments with us below.

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