Kara Petrovic // Fall 2014
As the nation confronts an epidemic of childhood obesity, three experts weigh in on food marketing and its impact on children, and offer solutions to improve the health of our families.
PERSPECTIVES: What are your thoughts on the epidemic of childhood obesity?
Raymond Cattaneo (RC): It’s real. It’s multifactorial. It’s preventable. And we can end it.
Polly Prendergast (PP): This isn’t rocket science. It’s a $1.6 billion industry when it comes to food marketing to children, and another $3 billion is marketing for games. We’re trapping children behind screens and watching as more and more schools cut out recess. We also aren’t paying enough attention to the brain usage, and realizing that the No. 1 way our brain grows is through movement. This is why children through age 5 need to move and need to move a lot.
Amanda Bruce (AB): I echo what’s been said. It’s a very daunting challenge to think about addressing, because it’s going to require some changes at a larger level than just at an individual one. A lot of people say, “It’s up to the individual. They should eat less and exercise more.” It’s not easy for adults to do this, let alone children to. Our society is set up that we live in a very obesogenic culture, and we have to go out of our way to get any physical activity.
RC: In the U.S., citizens pride themselves on a basic founding principle of freedom. That idea of freedom needs to shift from: ‘I should be able to drink a 32 oz. Coke whenever and wherever I want’ to ‘our children should be able to grow up in a society free from having to worry about becoming obese, or developing diabetes later in life. That paradigm shift is monumental for our society to see.
PERSPECTIVES: Why do you believe food marketing contributes to obesity?
AB: Cause and effect is really tricky, especially with an issue as complex as obesity. We have to be really careful about what we say causes something causing something else. A lot of the research studies that have been done are correlational in nature. We do know that childhood obesity is increasing and that the amount of money spent on marketing food to kids has increased. And we can look at countries like Quebec, which has a ban on fast food advertising and junk food. But we have to be careful about saying something causes something else. I think it’s a factor; it’s definitely a factor.
RC: Correlation does not equal causation; but when you look at food marketing, it’s deliberate, sophisticated, backed by lots of money and integrated into our daily lives.
PP: I looked it up and found that 80 percent of food marketing is intended for children.
RC: There’s a new science called neuromarketing, which looks at the way the marketing affects the brain and development of children.
AB: I do that research. Our technologies aren’t so sophisticated, although a lot of marketing and consulting companies promise results like that, like what’s the best way to market your product. Whereas decades of behavioral research has gotten them this far, now I think there’s a fear of ‘what happens if they find the buy button in our brain,’ but our brains are not the simple, thank goodness.
RC: There may not be a buy button in our brain, but for kids there’s certainly a lack of control. Once they get that brand in their mind, they know that’s what they want.
AB: We know from decades of neuroscience research that the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, the part behind our forehead, is not fully developed until the mid-’20s. Kids are at a disadvantage when it comes to making decisions, and it gets really critical when it comes to making healthy decisions.
PERSPECTIVES: Why do you think these marketing industries — food, beverage and chain restaurants — are targeting children?
AB: The potential and the future bottom line. If they can increase brand awareness for a kid, it will make them aware for the brand, and then brand preference and brand loyalty. If you can get a kid hooked by age 3, you’ve got a customer for life.
PP: And it influences the parents’ buying decision over and over.
RC: It’s called Pester Power. Kids will pester their parents and most of the time it happens in a store. No mom or dad wants a scene in the store. . The kid doesn’t even know what their doing. They just know that it has that character and that’s what they want.
AB: Do you know what the favorite vegetable in the ’50s was for kids in America? Spinach, because of Popeye.
RC: There’s good research that shows you can brand healthy food and that kids will pick that. One research found, ‘wrap healthy food in a McDonald’s wrapper and it will taste better. It’s not about the food, it’s about the brand.
PP: Back in the ‘50s, you also didn’t $3 billion being spent on gaming. You really have to think about how the social context has changed. When I was a kid, we were climbing trees, had unstructured sports, coming up with games, playing different levels of hide and seek, and you just don’t see that much any more. It’s a very different play structure today and it’s scary to see how far away we’re getting from that and how those strategies are important for brain development.
Perspectives: First Lady Michelle Obama has been very involved when it comes to talking about childhood obesity. In your opinion, how has she played a role in urging tougher food marketing rules, or has she?
RC: I don’t think she’s played a tough enough role.
PP: I don’t either.
RC: There’s a difference between saying, ‘Let’s get kids exercising’ versus ‘We’re going to ban food marketing in this country.’
AB: And that goes back to that sense of freedom. People in this country are particularly resistant to anything that even remotely resembles taking away a little bit of freedom. There is good science that supports the fact that people are less happy when they have more choices. Her “Let’s Move Campaign” is a great start, but much more needs to be done.
PP: At one level, we have this awareness where people are thinking about organic food and they want to talk about eating right, but on a community level, we’ve got local schools that want to ban outdoor play time. It doesn’t make any sense, particularly when we’re talking about young children who should have a minimum of an hour a day outside.
Perspectives: What should responsible marketing entail?
RC: Joe Camel is no more and because kids wanted to smoke when they saw him We can take some of the tools we’ve learned from tobacco marketing and use it for food marketing: limit exposure, ban advertising for kids under the teenage years and teach our parents how to communicate with their kids better.
AB: I agree. You said you that very eloquently.
PERSPECTIVES: What can parents or school districts do to help prevent obesity?
PP: School districts can ban sugary snacks from vending machines.
RC: It’s important for parents to look at food labeling, because sometimes even what looks healthy really isn’t. Those liquid yogurt things grate on me. And 100 percent fruit juice; there’s no fiber in it. If you eat good fruit — an actual apple or orange, yes there’s sugar in it — but there are fibers to digest those sugars.
AB: This happens with kid cereals. The way they’re boxed, you’d think they are the best healthy foods ever.
PERSPECTIVES: Is it ever too late to break bad habits in children?
AB: No, it’s never too late.
RC: No, but you’re fighting powerful forces and it can be difficult.
PP: Never, but there’s still a lot of stuff that parents can do like take TVs out of rooms and limit Internet time. Families should take walks and bike rides together through the neighborhood. Even just getting outside and tossing a ball back of fourth helps show good examples. But also teaching your kids when they are old enough about marketing.
AB: Adults also need to be weary of marketing. We need to be aware of what messages we’re getting and be critical of them.
RC: As a pediatrician, communication is key. We need to teach parents to communicate with their kids, and parents to communicate with the doctor. That’s so important in the health of a child.