The Advertising Diet: Why Ads Aren't to Blame for America's Obesity Problems

By Kurnit, Paul | ADWEEK, December 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Advertising Diet: Why Ads Aren't to Blame for America's Obesity Problems


Kurnit, Paul, ADWEEK


The obesity epidemic in America started five years ago. The ever-widening problem had been building for some time before that, but in 2003, advocacy groups and politicians sounded the alarm that America was fat and getting fatter. Childhood obesity carries with it staggering risks of disease and huge additional costs for medical care.

The obesity outcry of a few years ago was squarely pointed at the food and advertising industries. The simple and pervasive problem, it was claimed, was that food companies were making bad-for-us foods and advertising was causing obesity. If only the problem was that simple, there could likely be a simple solution. But, alas, it just wasn't, it just isn't, the case. In fact, more than 80 percent of parents believe that if their kids are overweight, they are to blame.

The major food companies, at first, were caught completely off guard by the criticism. Their initial response was "what did we do wrong?" The foods and related advertising promoting them have been part of the American diet for well over 50 years. Baby boomers grew up with presweetened cereal and fast food. Product development and advertising practice have essentially gone unchanged. There are more products and choices, to be sure. The media marketplace has also changed dramatically. But, food and beverage advertising dollars targeting children are down, not up.

The obesity problem is certainly real, though. It is a complex multi-dimensional issue. The commitment to and budgets for physical education in schools are way down. After-school sports programs have been cut. No one knows what a portion size should be. The food pyramid went from outdated to an update that is so confusing we don't know what an appropriate eating regimen is. Today's parents are afraid to send their kids outside after school to run around. Many morns are so busy they don't have or make the time to cook complete, well-balanced meals for dinner. Everybody's running to the next activity, but too few of us are running for health and wellness. The solution is energy balance: Burn the calories we consume. We are surely out of balance, but food and beverage advertising has nothing to do with that.

The Institute of Medicine 2006 report "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" examined every food study conducted in America and found no link-age between advertising and obesity. Advertising informs children about food and beverage brand options, but it does not proscribe quantity or calorie content kids consume.

That notwithstanding, the food companies and advertising agencies got the wake-up call. Frito-Lay removed trans fats from all of its snack products long before New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg even considered the issue. Parent company PepsiCo created a Smart Spot program and issued a corporate edict that a minimum of 50 percent of the company's new products had to fulfill better-for-you food criteria. General Mills reformulated its cereals to use whole grains and altered advertising guidelines to depict its foods in complete and appropriate meal or snacking contexts. …

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