Marketing food to children

Apparently, a government interagency group is developing non-binding guidelines for foods which are marketed to minors. If food producers were to follow these guidelines, either the food itself would need to be changed or the marketing thereof. Read more on CNN, HuffPo, and BNet.

I’m of two minds on this topic. On the one hand, I agree that corporations have gone overboard on kid-aimed marketing. Kellogg’s has been the target of two recent false advertising claims involving their children’s cereal, one for claiming that Rice Krispies boosts immunity and another that Frosted Mini-Wheats boosts attentiveness; they also claimed that Pop-Tarts contain real fruit (which is technically true: It’s 6%, which is hardly worth bragging about).

On the other hand, I’m concerned that these guidelines go too far. They’re not guidelines on what sort of marketing is allowed, but rather on what ingredients can be in foods that are marketed to children. The door remains deceptively open for companies to continue making junk food without modification, as long as they avoid marketing to children… whatever that would mean.

B-Net gives two examples of foods that apparently wouldn’t qualify under the guidelines: Pop-Tarts and Lunchables. This, I think, best exemplifies why I’m of two minds. Pop-Tarts, by all appearances, are unambiguously garbage food (when we do eat toaster pastries at home, we stick to Nature’s Path Organic, which are still high in sugar but lower in fat and sodium, and don’t contain HFCS).

Lunchables in contrast superficially look like they ought to be okay: Meat, cheese, crackers. However, they fail because of high levels of fat and sodium (Turkey and Cheddar, for instance, has five times too much sodium–a full gram!–and nine times too much fat), and possibly for other reasons.

It’s relatively easy to educate a child on why toaster pastries are best avoided except in small quantities. It’s more difficult to explain why meat, cheese, and crackers are to be avoided.

Unfettered, the food producers have been naughty, and haven’t been doing a good job of self-correcting.

Then again, I’m concerned that government intervention is becoming Draconian, and will lead to a situation where choice is removed from the marketplace. Ultimately, it’s up to parents to read labels and make sure that they approve of what their children are eating, and if sufficient numbers of parents refused to purchase the products in question, the companies would stop making them in favor of more popular products.

A non-Draconian strategy would be to make guidelines available that come with a seal of approval that could then be placed on a product: “Meets or exceeds federal guidelines for children’s food.” Producers could ignore the guidelines, and fail to label foods, at their peril. Parents could buy such foods with confidence, or ignore the labels or lack thereof, likewise at their own peril.

Unfortunately, the government has already tried such a strategy and, naturally, screwed it up by being too lenient (Froot Loops were graded a smart choice because Froot Loops are better than doughnuts, for instance). Just because the government failed once, though, that doesn’t mean an entirely different strategy is called for, a strategy that without the force of law is laughably strict and, with the force of law, treads into uncomfortable waters without a clear definition of what qualifies as marketing to children.

I am most concerned, then, that this is a slippery slope. If “marketing to children” is verboten for certain foods (I’m also unclear as to whether candy bars count as food), then is that prohibition limited to advertising specifically designed for children (such as ads featuring cartoons and minors), or would it also include advertising that might appeal to children shown in areas they might be aware of (such as prime-time television programming, billboards, or child-friendly magazines)?

I’m hoping that the ultimate result of these particularly strict but not legally binding guidelines is that the government agencies plan to shoot for as far as they can start with, and let market forces coax them back into a more workable middle ground. I do think corporate food producers should be working harder to make sure they’re minimizing blatantly “bad for you” ingredients, and inasmuch as guidelines such as these serve to encourage better behavior, I’m for them. Also, with certain manufacturers working to actively confuse the issue by making overstated or overtly false claims about health values, that makes it more difficult for parents and other caretakers to fully assess products.

Parents, though, ought to also be doing more work to make sure that they’re actually aware of what food is available, and what’s in the food they’re purchasing, despite what the pretty packaging and flair-filled advertising suggests. Indeed, a great big Dora or Transformers cartoon on the front of a package should not be an incentive to buy but rather a red warning flag (although not necessarily a deal-breaker, since Earth’s Best uses Sesame Street as a tie-in).

Ideally, this should be resolved, and should have been resolved, without any government intervention at all. As we continue to abrogate our own responsibilities, though, we open the door farther and farther to an increasing obtrusive Nanny State.

(Edit 7/28/21: Most of the external links on this are now broken and have been removed.)

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