General Mills attacked for misleading health ads

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Related tags: General mills, Nutrition

A controversial national ad campaign from General Mills looks
likely to run into trouble with the health lobby, writes Anthony
Fletcher.

The company's " Choose Breakfast​"​ campaign, the largest children's advertising effort ever in terms of its annual reach of kids, is designed to communicate the benefits of breakfast to children.

The campaign will tell kids that breakfasts can help them stay focused in the morning and build muscles, and new ads will tout the beneficial effects of cereal.

The commercials will air on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.

But critics are worried that because the pitch includes sugary cereals such as Cocoa Puffs, Trix and Cinnamon Toast Crunch, children will mix up the benefits and healthy cereals with others that are not so nutritious.

Kristen Harrison, professor of speech communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for example, told FoodNavigator-USA recently that the problem with TV advertising is that it intentionally blurs distinctions of what is nutritious.

"Child television viewers are bombarded with health claims in television advertising,"​ she said. "Given the plentitude of advertisements on television touting the health benefits of even the most nutritionally bankrupt of foods, child viewers are likely to become confused about which foods are in fact healthy."

General Mills however is unrepentant.

"The ads show kids in aspirational, fun settings with the health benefits of breakfast articulated in kid terms of 'think fast,' 'have power' and 'get going,'"​ said Eric Lucas, General Mills vice president of marketing for Big G cereals.

""The advertising will inspire kids, and is in line with how kids process communication around health benefits."

Indeed, the company goes on to argue that the campaign has the support of both advertising boards and health organizations.

"This is exactly what a leader in the food industry should be doing,"​ said Elizabeth Lascoutx, vice president and director of the Children's Advertising Review Unit. "Ensuring that positive, nonbranded health messages like Choose Breakfast are being delivered to children is not only responsible, but commendable."

The company, which reported annual worldwide net sales of $12.3 billion last year, also argues that numerous studies demonstrate the importance of breakfast to school performance, thus validating the campaign.

"Those who would criticize the sugar in presweetened cereals need to look at the science,"​ said Susan Crockett, Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition.

"Cereal, both presweetened and non sweetened, makes up less than 5 percent of a child's daily sugar intake. But in return, a bowl of cereal with milk provides a wide variety of important nutrients including calcium, iron, folic acid and B vitamins all for about 120 calories per serving."

The debate over General Mills' new advertising campaign underlines the growing divergence in opinion over the responsibilities of food advertising and its influence on children. Where once a health claim was viewed as a commonplace marketing device, it is now scrutinised with the intensity once commonly reserved for issues of food safety.

So while health campaigners would argue that General Mills is acting irresponsibly, General Mills chief marketing officer Mark Addicks insists that the company is acting in exactly the opposite manner.

"It is our job to communicate the benefits - the opportunity for a healthier body weight and to perform better in school - in a way that will resonate with kids and make a difference,"​ he said.

Related topics: R&D

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