Fat hits the fire: US food companies zap adverts on children's television

Report piles on pressure over marketing of low-nutrition products. Some firms have already taken the hint. By Jill Ferguson
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An official report linking the growing problem of child obesity to food industry marketing has forced manufacturers to re-evaluate how they target children as consumers.

Last week, the US Institute of Medicine (IoM) published a study on the influence of the US's $10bn (£6bn) a year food advertising industry - and that's just the bit aimed at children - which experts say may prove as important as the Surgeon General's report on smoking. This landmark release in 1964 led to the demise of Joe Camel as the "friendly" face of the tobacco industry.

The IoM, part of the National Academies of Science, found that US food and beverage advertising was certainly money well spent. There was a clear link between marketing and children requesting and eating "high-calorie, low-nutrient products". The study also found a "strong" statistical link between ad viewing and obesity - echoing the conclusions of studies done in the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

If corporations don't self-regulate more effectively - shifting the emphasis towards healthy foods -- then the IoM recommends that Congress does it for them. This includes only allowing the use of perky cartoon characters for "products that support healthful diets".

It is a similar story in Europe. As part of a broader investigation into obesity, the European Union's Health Commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, has threatened to introduce EU legislation if there are "no signs of progress" from companies. The UK Government has asked Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, to look into food advertising to children, with one key issue being the use of celebrities in marketing.

According to the International Obesity Task Force, around 155 million children globally are obese. Closer to home, the EU estimates that 25 per cent of children across the union are seriously overweight, with an estimated 22 per cent in the UK.

Seeing the writing on the wall, many food and beverage companies are already making changes - generally "welcoming" the various reports, and labelling the findings as "consistent" with their own moves towards more responsible advertising.

In January 2005, global food giant Kraft took a radical step in its marketing to young Americans. Under the "sensible solution" strategy, products that do not meet nutritional benchmarks are no longer advertised in youth media. This means that many of Kraft's high-profile brands - such as Oreo biscuits - are not now pushed directly at children.

"Kraft isn't stopping adver- tising to children - it's the mix of advertising that's changed, with a focus on more nutritious foods," said Mark Berlind, Kraft's vice-president of corporate and government affairs. He acknowledges that the cartoon characters on packaging remain an issue for some consumers.

McDonald's is taking a different tack and has actually increased its marketing on children's television. However, the new ads are more about branding and the promotion of physical activity.

Making change is also good for business, with a clear consumer push for healthier eating options. According to the US Grocery Manufacturers' Association (GMA), almost all their members have improved the "nutrition" profile of their products since 2001, and more than half are making changes to package sizes.

"It's not a backlash, it's a terrific business opportunity. Companies that can provide consumers with the better nutrition that they want, combined with great taste and convenience, will really win in the market place," said Mr Berlind.

Kraft products that sport the company's nutrition flag are outselling its other products by up to four times.

Companies that haven't spotted this health trend are missing out. One of the factors dragging on Coca-Cola's share price is the group's slowness in reacting to consumer preference for water and fruit juice products. This is being pushed from the very top, with the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzen- egger, passing legislation to ban the sale of all carbonated soft drinks in schools across the state.

Unilever, which owns one of the US's largest food groups, says it does not actively market any of its products to children.