The Media’s Role in the Epidemic of Child Obesity in the United States
By Jordan Sullivan
Childhood obesity is becoming more common every day. “Today, the planet’s 1.6 billion overweight people by far outnumber the 700 million who are undernourished” (Popkin, jacket). With all of the worry over television characters being unrealistically thin and possibly influencing children to develop eating disorders in an effort to look like them, it’s puzzling that exactly the opposite seems to have happened. This may show that children have been confused by the messages given by television; telling them that they should be thin, but to eat fattening foods. Many kids today seem to fail to see the correlation between eating properly and having a healthy body type. In fact, many adults today seem to have this problem. “Today about 25 million kids and teens in the U.S. are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. That’s nearly one in every three young people” (The Alliance for a Healthier Generation).
Childhood obesity increases the risk of a number of health problems, including an increased risk of asthma, bone and joint problems, sleep disorders, liver disease, gall bladder disease as well as depression. Being unhappy with one’s body may also lead to disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia. Diseases now affect children that formerly largely only affected adults. This is becoming more and more common. According to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, adult-onset diabetes has become so common in children that the name had to be changed to Type II Diabetes. “Some experts believe that if obesity among kids continues to increase at this rate, our current generation could become the FIRST in American history to live shorter lives than their parents” (Alliance). Kids are also not climbing on board with healthy food trends like many adults are. Those parents who do try to set healthy food standards often still unknowingly stock unhealthy foods in the home because advertisers have begun to take advantage of health trends by using labeling that makes food products sound healthier than they may actually be.
One factor in the explosive increase of childhood obesity cases in the United States could very well be the media’s influence on children’s activities and eating habits. Not only does the time spent using various forms of media often replace time that could, and should, be spent participating in physical activities or sleeping, but different forms of media may be loaded with advertisements for unhealthy food products or lifestyles. “In a 1985 article by William Dietz and Stephen Gortmaker in the Journal of Pediatrics,… An analysis of data from a large national study of more than 13,000 children, the National Health Examination Survey (NHES), found significant associations between the amount of time children spent watching television and the prevalence of obesity. The authors concluded that, among 12- to 17-year-olds, the prevalence of obesity increased by 2% for each additional hour of television viewed, even after controlling other variables such as prior obesity, race, and socio-economic status. According to the authors, ‘only prior obesity had a larger independent effect than television on the prevalence of obesity’ ” (Kaiser 2).
Children are strongly affected by what they see on television. For all of the energy that parents put into worrying about the depiction of smoking cigarettes on television, the eating habits of the characters on television are rarely even whispered about; even though obesity is nearly as dangerous, if not just as dangerous, to a person’s health. “Obesity-related illnesses will kill around 400,000 Americans this year-almost the same as smoking” (Spurlock, 13).
Advertisers know how to reach kids through various forms of media, especially since kids are spending more and more time in front of televisions and computers. “Experimental studies have demonstrated that even a brief exposure to food commercials can influence children’s preferences” (Kaiser pg 5). According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2009 kids between 8 and 18 spent an average of six hours and 23 minutes watching television and movies and using computers each day. This screen time provides advertisers with a prime opportunity to utilize different methods to reach kids. “Over the same period of time in which childhood obesity has increased so dramatically, research indicates that the number of ads children view has increased as well. … As the number of cable channels exploded in the 1990s, opportunities to advertise directly to children expanded as well. The most recent estimates are that children now see an average of more than 40,000 TV ads a year.” (Kaiser pg 4)
According to Kaiser, food advertisements make up the majority of the ads targeted at children: the highest number of them for candy (32% of all ads for children), cereal (31%), and fast food (9%). Meanwhile, advertisements for fruits or vegetables are nonexistent.
The allure of advertising to children is made obvious by the amount of money that children spend. According to Kaiser, in 2004 marketing executives anticipated that children who were under 12-years-old would “spend $35 billion of their own money and influence $200 billion in household spending.” The brand loyalty that develops as a result of advertising to children creates life-long customers. “ ‘We have living proof of the long-lasting quality of early brand loyalties in the cradle-to-grave marketing at McDonald’s, and how well it works,’ James McNeal, a well-known kids’ marketing guru and the author of Kids As Customers has said. ‘We start taking children in for their first and second birthdays, and on and on, and eventually they have a great deal of preference for that brand. Children can carry that with them through a lifetime’ ” (Spurlock 149). “When buying their own food and drink, half of kids ages seven to twelve choose candy, more than one-third will also buy soda and ice cream and about one-fourth might go for fast food as well” (Spurlock 151).
A popular tactic for reaching child customers involves using popular television and movie characters in advertisements or using toys from the show or movie as prizes that comes along with the food. Food companies often get involved in promotional deals with movie studios or television networks. “Today, corporations spend over $15 billion every year on marketing, advertising and promotions meant to program kids to consume, consume and consume some more” (Spurlock 151) This can be beneficial to both companies because they will promote each other by combining the characters and the product. The movie or television studio may allow the food company to use images from their productions in advertisements and packaging and often toys that are included as prizes in the package to lure kids in to buy the food. This is great for the television or movie studio because their production is being promoted on the food company’s packaging, in their advertisements and even being taken home to be played with by the kids. “In the summer of 2004 alone, Burger King cross-promoted with Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2 and Yu-Gi-Oh! Wendy’s sucked up to Garfield. Ironically, McDonald’s, stuck in an exclusive ten-year promotional deal with Disney, was having a lousy summer – The studio was producing nothing but crap. The summer before, McDonald’s had had a field day with Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean, but Disney’s big movies of 2004 were flops like The Alamo and Home on the Range- a film McDonald’s couldn’t exactly promote, since the lead characters were all cows. Couldn’t you just see the ads? ‘You’ve seen them on the screen, now come eat them in person!’ ” (Spurlock 150).
Children cannot escape advertisements on the internet either. Game websites that are popular among children are often sponsored by fast food or snack companies. In 2004 McDonald’s cross-promoted with Neopets, an online virtual pet game. The Neopets website featured advertisements for McDonald’s as part of the fast food company’s “25 years of Happiness Happy Birthday Happy Meal Celebration,” while McDonald’s included one of 109 different Neopets toy designs in every Happy Meal. (Spurlock 160)
“Most children under age 6 cannot distinguish between program content and commercials, and most children under 8 do not understand that the purpose of advertising is to sell a product” (Kaiser 8). Many food commercials directed at children are formatted as cartoons that have simple plots, with characters that children come to recognize and, of course, a memorable catch phrase. There are tons of recognizable characters in the marketplace that kids will remember for a lifetime. Lucky the Leprechaun instructs kids to “Catch me Lucky Charms!” Chip the wolf, the Cookie Crisp bandit, howls for “CooOOOookie Crisp!” This recognition leads to kids screaming for boxes of cereal featuring those same characters when mom or dad takes them to the grocery store.
The Nag Factor
Many parents don’t have any choice but to bring their kids along to the grocery store with them, this is where many parents fall victim to the “Nag Factor.”
The Nag Factor is a study on nagging that was conducted by Western Media International (now Initiative Media Worldwide) in 1998 to help retailers take advantage of nagging to increase sales. A press release was issued from Western Media International headlined “The Fine Art of Whining: Why Nagging is a Kid’s Best Friend.” It contained a study that identified which kinds of parents are most likely to give in to nagging (Linn 33).
“When Lucy Hughes, director of initiative and strategy for Innovative Media, was interviewed for a film called The Corporation, she justified the Nag Factor study this way: ‘If we understand what motivates a parent to buy a product … if we could develop a creative commercial- you know, a thirty-second commercial that encourages the child to whine… that child understands and is able to reiterate to the parents, then we’re successful’ ” (Linn 39) Companies using such tactics inhibit the parents’ ability to say no, in spite of all good intentions and pledges to only provide healthy foods.
Most parents try to make good food choices, but they are often confused about proper nutrition by advertising. Kids whine for the box of cereal that they saw on TV and the advertisers tell parents that it’s okay because the cereal is “enriched” with vitamins and minerals and is part of a balanced breakfast, even though the cereal may still be loaded with sugar.
The media makes use of buzzwords such as whole grain, fiber, organic, natural and a number of other words in order to make foods appear healthier. The use of these words greatly increases parents’ confusion about nutrition. In some cases these words can be useful guides when shopping for healthier options. In other cases they are used to trick parents into buying junk that has a healthy ingredient.
Another advertisement that uses the confusion of parents to sell junk food to kids is a commercial for Kellogg’s cereal that flaunts the fact that the product contains three grams of fiber. Yet upon inspection of the nutrition label for Fruit Loops, sugar is still listed as the first ingredient, 12 grams, in fact (Kellogg’s). ‘Fiber’ is among the words that the media have turned into a buzzword to make people feel like smart, healthy shoppers. Fiber is a healthy and important nutrient in any diet, but the presence of one healthy ingredient doesn’t make up for the amount of sugar and other unhealthy ingredients found in the food.
The Corn Council has released a barrage of commercials trying to convince people that corn syrup is not unhealthy. The plot of the commercials always involves someone pointing out that a product contains corn syrup, to which the other person replies, “So?” The accuser is left speechless as if to suggest that their initial reaction to corn syrup was merely a result of baseless hype. The other person responds to their companion’s silence by stating that high corn syrup is natural, made from corn, low in calories and, like sugar, is fine in moderation. Some people fall for this, not noticing that the ad was paid for by the Corn Council. In actuality, among the reasons that corn syrup is bad for you, corn syrup is processed differently than sugar. According to Morgan Spurlock’s book, ‘Don’t Eat This Book,’ high fructose corn syrup is a major contributor to overeating and weight gain because it alters the way that your body functions. Your body processes it differently than it does regular sugar. It causes your liver to throw more fat out into your bloodstream, which causes your body to store more fat, as well as tricks your body into wanting to eat more by suppressing the production of leptin, the hormone that tells your brain that you’re full and speeds up the metabolism. A lot of manufacturers like to make use of high fructose corn syrup because it’s cheap and it extends shelf life, not to mention that they are aware of the obvious connection between eating more and buying more (Spurlock 97). Because manufacturers make use of corn syrup for so many purposes and in so many products it is nearly impossible to consume in moderation. But with all of this information available as easily as typing in some key words on an Internet search engine, many people still have no idea what’s wrong with consuming corn syrup. The advertisers tell people that it’s okay to be ignorant, just listen to what the commercials are telling you because they couldn’t possibly have an agenda of their own and they wouldn’t want you to miss out on any of that delicious corn syrupy goodness.
The media’s ability to manipulate children could be used for good instead of evil. “…Some have pointed to media use as one of the most easily modifiable influences on overweight and obesity among children” (Kaiser 8). Television shows could depict characters making healthy food choices rather than shunning broccoli in favor of ice cream.
Many countries have already put policies in place to protect children. “Several industrialized democracies have adopted policies designed to protect children from excessive marketing practices. Sweden, Norway, and Finland, for instance, do not permit commercial sponsorship of children’s programs. Sweden also does not permit any television advertising directed to children under age 12. Belgium imposes restrictions on commercials five minutes before and after as well as during children’s programming. The BBC decided to prohibit use of its cartoon characters in fast food ads, and England is pushing for stricter guidelines for advertising aimed at children” (Kaiser 8).
According to the Los Angeles Times, “A county supervisor has created a stir with his proposal to bar the inclusion of toys in restaurant meals that contain high amounts of sugar, salt or certain fats” (Bernstein) in Santa Clara County, California. “Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the proposal would forbid the inclusion of a toy in any restaurant meal that has more than 485 calories, more than 600 mg of salt or high amounts of sugar or fat. In the case of McDonald’s, the limits would include all of the chain’s Happy Meals — even those that include apple sticks instead of French fries” (Bernstein). It may be a small start, but this proposal certainly heading in the right direction of preventing restaurants and movies from cross-promoting at the expense of children’s health.
Some of the most basic ways to pull kids out of the grasp of advertisers are to limit time spent in front of televisions and computers and educate kids about the goals of advertisers as well as how the food being advertised will affect them. Cooking healthy meals and keeping the family active will set a good example and hopefully create healthy habits that will remain with the child for life.
The health of children in the United States is declining and taking their life expectancy down with it. The media plays a large role in the growing number of overweight and obese children in the United States because, with the increased amount of time that children spend in front of televisions and computers, kids are being exposed to more advertisements than ever. Children are confused by television shows that give them the unrealistic impression that they can maintain an unhealthy diet and a slim figure simultaneously. Television and movie characters are used to advertise unhealthy foods and toys based off of the characters are used to lure kids into picking out boxes of cereal or going to a restaurant to eat. Regulations may be necessary to make it more difficult for advertisers to prey on children. Until the advertisers are under control, parents should learn about the ways that their children are targeted so that they may better protect them. The epidemic of obesity is reaching crisis level and serious attention needs to be given to find ways to turn it around.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation “Childhood Obesity–An American Epidemic.”HealthierGeneration.org. Web. 2 May 2010.
Bernstein, Sharon. “Happy Meal toys could be banned in Santa Clara County.” Los Angeles Times April 27, 2010:Web. 2 May 2010.
The Kaiser Family Foundation “The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity.” The Kaiser Family Foundation. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, Feb 2004. Web. 2 May 2010.
Linn, Susan. Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. New York: The New Press, 2004. Print.
Popkin, Barry. The World is Fat: The Fads, Trends, Policies, and Products that are fattening the Human Race. New York: The Penguin Group, 2009. Print.
Spurlock, Morgan. Don’t Eat This Book. New York: The Penguin Group, 2005. Print.