The obvious reason is money. If you market brightly colored sugary cereals, for example, by covering the packaging with kids’ favorite cartoon characters and placing ads during kids’ favorite television programs, you’ve got a better chance of profitability than if you market them to adults.
But this approach is damaging the food industry. Consumers are beginning to wonder whether there might be something deeply unethical about creating high-sugar, high-fat, high-sodium products and then trying to attract (increasingly overweight) kids by associating them with all they love best.
Self-regulation in action
It must be said that industry has made enormous strides in recent years to restrict its advertising of unhealthy foods to children but marketers still have a long way to go.
In Europe, the EU Pledge aims to curb marketing of high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar products to children and represents over half of the European food industry’s advertising spend. It was set up in response to a 2005 threat of EU-wide legislation.
In the United States, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was set up in 2006 after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) launched a probe investigating industry’s marketing to kids. It has a similar aim to the EU Pledge, but represents much less of the market, even though it counts some of the largest food and beverage manufacturers in the US among its members. Both schemes have faced criticism for not having strict enough standards.
That’s where government regulation could help. Although the packaged foods industry has consistently pushed for a purely self-regulatory approach to its advertising practices, better independent oversight could help consumer perception of an industry that’s viewed with growing skepticism.
This isn’t about government telling people what to feed their kids – it’s about giving that role back to parents and taking it away from talking cartoon animals.
Last week, a report conducted for the EU Pledge found that there has been a dramatic decline in the number of commercials advertising unhealthy foods and drinks to kids in Europe – but the greatest success has been in countries where self-regulation works together with government intervention.
In the UK, for example, kids’ exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods has plummeted since its advertising watchdog, Ofcom, banned high-fat, high-salt and high-sugar foods from appearing during TV programs designed to appeal to children in 2007.
Meanwhile in the US, the Federal Trade Commission is again seeking information from major food and beverage companies about the effectiveness of voluntary guidelines. We will wait and see how successful industry self-regulation has been in the United States; and my guess is that there have been some significant improvements, as industry strives to dodge legislation.
However, many food and beverage manufacturers continue to put out mixed messages.
On the one hand, there has been vociferous support for Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to fight childhood obesity. On the other, there is steadfast resistance to any government-led initiatives to restrict marketing of junk foods to children. Public trust in the packaged food industry is already low and this kind of confusion doesn’t help.
It’s time to embrace government intervention alongside other initiatives.
Industry needs to stop trying to have its cake and market it to kids too.
Caroline Scott-Thomas is a journalist specializing in the food industry. Prior to completing a Masters degree in journalism at Edinburgh's Napier University, she had spent five years working as a chef.