BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. At the end of last year, a 500-page report from the Institute of Medicine concluded that the 10 billion dollars spent each year pitching food and drinks to kids is a critical factor in the alarming rise in obesity, type II diabetes and other dietary-related health problems plaguing America's youth. This got me wondering about my own five-year-old, so we took a field trip to the supermarket. Please note that while Ida is brilliant and adorable, she can't read. Oddly, that proved to be no handicap in the cereal aisle. [SUPERMARKET SEGMENT] [BACKGROUND MUSIC]
IDA: Um, Trix!
BOB GARFIELD: Trix! Right. And what's this one?
IDA: Marshmallow cereal.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, Lucky Charms. And, let's see. What else? What else do you – [OVERTALK]
BOB GARFIELD: Honey – [OVERTALK]
IDA: Honey butter.
BOB GARFIELD: Golden Grahams? Yeah.
IDA: Yeah. And there's also – there's also honey buttered Cheerios.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, how do you know about all these?
IDA: I saw them on TV. Oh, Cocoa Puffs! [END SUPERMARKET]
BOB GARFIELD: From this highly scientific study, it appears that advertisements are doing the Trix – I mean, trick. But the Federal Trade Commission issued its own report earlier this month. The conclusion: self-regulation is enough to keep the advertisers in line, therefore keeping our increasingly overweight children healthy. Food companies, fearing a crackdown, breathed a sigh of relief, while health advocates felt the report did not go far enough. Michele Simon is the director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, and she joins us now. Michele, welcome to OTM.
MICHELE SIMON: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: If toymakers and publishers are allowed to use Super Mario Brothers and SpongeBob SquarePants as licensed characters to sell their products, why shouldn't the food industry be permitted to use the same tactics to sell their stuff?
MICHELE SIMON: It's important to understand that young children don't even have the cognitive ability to conceptualize what marketing is. So they see SpongeBob in the program. A few seconds later they see SpongeBob in a commercial. They have no idea that there's even a difference. Why do kids ask for, you know, macaroni and cheese? Because the box is splashed with SpongeBob. And that's the kind of exploitation that people are saying should stop.
BOB GARFIELD: But we're faced with the problem that these are legal products, and we have a First Amendment. Are advertisers not permitted, within the boundaries of truth, to say more or less what they please to promote their products to kids or anybody else?
MICHELE SIMON: Just because the product is legal does not make the marketing around it legal. I really don't think our founding fathers could have anticipated that the First Amendment would be used to protect the likes of Kraft and Kellogg and PepsiCo to target young children.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I'm not the world's best parent. You know, I have certain minor flaws. Hey, I'll give you something to cry about! You know, you know, that sort of thing. But I've got to tell you, my kids are exposed to quite a bit of commercial television and commercial messages, and I've discovered that "no" is an extremely effective answer to any request for junk food, and they kind of learned to expect a no before they even ask the question.
MICHELE SIMON: Obviously, parents have to set limits, etc., but what role does industry and the government have to play, as well, in helping parents do as good a job as they can? And why are food companies undermining the ability to do a good job at every opportunity? You walk through the supermarket aisles and it's no accident that all of the foods that are unhealthy for kids - the sugary cereals, the fruit rolls, the highly-processed, high-sugar, high-fat items - are placed at a child's eye level, two to three feet high, for kids to grab and yell to Mommy, “Please buy me this.” I mean, industry has a term for this. It's called "the nag factor." A lot of marketing is going into the Internet, and we've had to invent a new word, which is "advergaming," which is a technique that companies use to embed advertising into Internet games. So while companies like to point to parents, what they're doing is going behind parents' back, targeting children directly and undermining parents' ability to be responsible.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, just by coincidence, last week I happened to spend some time with the head of marketing for McDonald's Worldwide and with a big shot in Kraft's organization. And it was very clear to me that they have gotten the message; that they know that the public health crisis, with childhood obesity and so forth, has put a kind of pressure on them that they have never faced before. Have you seen anything more than a token recognition of what's happening, or is self-regulation beginning to actually work?
MICHELE SIMON: The food companies are on the defense, there's no question about that. Companies like McDonald's, Kraft, Coca-Cola have been responding. However, the way they've chosen to respond is basically window dressing. Kraft came out with this big announcement in January of '05 saying they were changing their marketing practices towards children. How are they doing that? Were they going to stop marketing to kids? No. They were just going to shift some of their marketing dollars from some products into other products – products like half the sugar Fruity Pebbles cereal. Now, most nutritionists will tell you that there's not much difference between regular sugared Pebbles cereal and half the sugar Fruity Pebbles cereal, especially when they make up for the sweetness with Splenda, an artificial sweetener.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
MICHELE SIMON: And the number of calories is the same. These companies understand that public relations is the name of the game, and so they're responding in a number of ways to make us all think that everything's fine, they're doing a good job. But the truth is, it's just a bunch of PR.
BOB GARFIELD: Michele, thank you very much.
MICHELE SIMON: Well, you're welcome. Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Michele Simon is the director of the Center for Informed Food Choices. She teaches health policy at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.