Experts Say Ads Make Kids Fat

First Lady Michelle Obama has begun nationally promoting her campaign to combat childhood obesity. And she says the media plays a major role in the problem. Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Dr. Darcy Thompson, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, discuss the link between advertising and childhood obesity.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Im Lynn Neary, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, a look at how foreclosures and the housing crisis are remaking the American landscape, but now, first lady Michelle Obama is busy promoting her national campaign to combat childhood obesity. Its called Lets Move. She launched the initiative earlier this month and this weekend granted an interview to Fox News host Mike Huckabee.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Its what our kids see in the media. You know, so what is Nick saying on those commercials and what are the Disney characters talking about and how do we, you know, increase the public awareness that families are getting and kids are getting?

NEARY: To talk more about the link between media and obesity, weve invited Margo Wootan, who is the Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She joins us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. And were also joined by Dr. Darcy Thompson, who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Welcome to both of you.

Ms. MARGO WOOTAN (Director of Nutrition Policy, Center for Science in the Public Interest): Thanks for having me.

Dr. DARCY THOMPSON (Assistant professor, Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine): Good to be here.

NEARY: And before we jump into this discussion, I do want to note that we did place a call to the American Association of Advertising Agencies, but no one was made available to take part in our conversation today. But Dr. Thompson, turning to you, first, if you could just summarize a little bit what research shows about the link between advertising and childhood obesity?

Dr. THOMPSON: I think research shows that there is a strong link between the impact of advertising, particularly food and drink advertising, on childrens food preferences, their food request, the request they make to their parents and the beliefs that they have regarding food. And all of these together have an influence on the prevalence of obesity in children today.

NEARY: Now, I know you authored a study that looks specifically at Spanish language television ads. Can you tell us a bit about your studys conclusions?

Dr. THOMPSON: Sure. Yeah. We basically looked at after-school advertising on Spanish language television in the United States by looking at the 3:00 to 9:00 p.m. hours on the largest Spanish language television channels. And what we found is of the food and drink advertisements, over half of the food advertisements were for fast food, and over half of the drink ads were for sugar drinks and sodas. And in particular, most of these advertisements for food and drink were shown multiple times during the after-school hours, which is known to be a tactic that can increase the influence of advertisements on viewers.

NEARY: All right. We have some tape here of what some of the advertising sounds like. This is advertising in English. Some of the what were talking about with these commercials, lets listen to some of that.

(Soundbite of Kelloggs TV commercial)

Unidentified Woman: Apple Jacks cereal with the taste of apples.

Unidentified Man #1: No.

Unidentified Woman: Only in his dreams because its the taste of sweet cinnamon thats really...

Unidentified Man: Cinnamon.

Unidentified Woman: ...part of a nutritious breakfast.

Unidentified Man #2: Huh. New Kelloggs Mini Swirlz Fudge Ripple Cereals. Rich, chocolate and creamy fudge flavors swirled round into crunchy cereal-sized bites, a captivating part of this complete breakfast.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #3: You want those ghosts? My Danny Phantom Crunch Berries are filled with ghosts and they change color with milk.

Unidentified Man #4: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #3: Goblins.

Unidentified Child: Sweet.

Unidentified Man #3: My Danny Phantom Crunch Berries are the color-changing part of this good (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of crashing)

Unidentified Man #4: (unintelligible) Capn.

NEARY: Well, I think if you have a child, you have heard that kind of advertising many times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: My favorite there was the Fudge Ripple Cereal. Let me turn to Margo Wootan now. Margo, the first ladys initiative takes more than a three-pronged approach. I mean, it takes several approaches to this problem of childhood obesity. Do you think there is enough emphasis being put on this issue of food marketing?

Ms. WOOTAN: Out of the prongs of her campaign right now, food marketing isnt one thats highlighted and I think its one that really needs to be added. I dont think we can reduce childhood obesity without taking on this issue of junk food marketing full force.

NEARY: Now, theyre talking about asking for a billion dollars a year over the next decade for this initiative, and I was just wondering, does that even match whats being paid on advertising for junk food on television and online now, on the Web?

Ms. WOOTAN: One of the key components of her campaign, which I think is so important, is to improve the nutritional quality of school foods. And so that $1 billion that the president has asked for per year would go toward the school component to get more kids into the school lunch and breakfast program and as importantly to improve the nutritional quality of the lunches - add more fruits, and vegetables, and whole grains. And then the other key thing theyre asking Congress to do is to get the junk food out of the vending machines, the a la carte line in the school stores. In these times of high obesity rates, it doesnt make any sense to be serving candy bars and soda in schools anymore.

NEARY: So, none of that $1 billion then would be geared towards, say, public service announcements or anything that would counter some of the billions being spent on the advertising you're saying.

Ms. WOOTAN: Thats right. What we need to do with marketing - I mean, certainly there needs to be some counter-marketing to do more to promote healthy foods to kids, but we have to get rid of the junk food ads. Right now, companies are spending about $2 billion a year, and the advertising is so slick, its so appealing. I know my little girl. She doesnt like to use the DVR to fast forward over the commercials because theyre so fun, and the advertising is everywhere.

Its not only on TV, but its on kids radio stations, kids magazines. On the Internet, they build the products into games, you know, these so-called advert games, its on the front of the packages, its even in schools. And so companies have made some pledges to cut back on junk food marketing, but studies show that they havent gone far enough, that still the majority of ads in to kids are for junk food.

NEARY: If youre just joining us, Im Lynn Neary, and youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and were talking about the role advertisers play in the increased rates of obesity in American children. Were speaking with public health experts Margo Wootan and Dr. Darcy Thompson.

Dr. Thompson, Id like you to weigh in on this a little bit. I mean, should this initiative be more aimed at this whole question of marketing junk food to kids?

Dr. THOMPSON: Yeah. I think that it definitely needs to include it. Marketing, it's been said, has a huge influence on children. Theres plenty of studies that show that advertising works. Why companies are putting, you know, millions of dollars into advertising to children is because it works. It influences their ideas about food. It influences what they think tastes good, what doesnt taste good. And its directly targeted towards children, and it needs to be included in any comprehensive plan thats going to try to address obesity in children these days.

NEARY: Is this the most important piece of the puzzle or just one component?

Dr. THOMPSON: I think its one component. I think there's no one thing thats going to change obesity in children these days. Its caused by multiple things and if any program that takes on this issue needs to be - have multiple different components that addresses physical activity, that addresses diet, that addresses beliefs, that addresses so many different things.

NEARY: Margo, even as a matter of free speech, is it really possible to regulate advertising of any kind off the air?

Ms. WOOTAN: Well, were actually making very reasonable requests. Were asking companies to step up and do the right thing. Were asking food manufacturers, the big chain restaurants, and the entertainment companies to set their own policies for which foods theyll market on which types of media. And 16 major food and beverage companies have stepped up and joined a self-regulatory program through the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

But there have been a couple of studies done recently that show that that program isnt as effective as it needs to be. There have been some small decreases in the amount of junk food marketing, but the changes are really modest. We need those companies to strengthen their policies. And then we need more companies to pledge not to market junk food, especially the entertainment companies like Disney and Nickelodeon that are airing these ads aimed at kids.

NEARY: Well, this is - and its a huge part of their income, the commercials on Nickelodeon and on Disney are these ads, so...

Ms. WOOTAN: Well, they can market food to kids, just not unhealthy foods. I mean, given obesity costs the country about $150 billion a year. Its causing heart disease, cancer, diabetes. We cant afford to keep airing all these junk food ads.

NEARY: Well, one of the thing, Margo, youre really talking about taking off ads like for McDonalds, for instance. I mean, this is a huge company that spends billions of dollars on advertising. Can you really take McDonalds ads off of Nickelodeon?

Ms. WOOTAN: Now, actually McDonalds is one of the companies that stepped up and made some commitments to reduce junk food marketing.

NEARY: Hmm.

Ms. WOOTAN: So, were saying, its not they cant market McDonalds, but you can only market the healthier options. And so far McDonalds has done that for TV. But they need to do that in schools, in the restaurants with the toy giveaways, with their movie tie ins. So, McDonalds has taken some steps, they need to take a few more.

NEARY: Dr. Thompson, as you said before, this is only one part of this the first ladys initiative and really one part of how to address this problem of childhood obesity. What about the role of parents and how do you support the parents in helping their kids make good choices and how do you support parents in helping to offset this gigantic marketing campaign that is aimed at their children?

Dr. THOMPSON: Yeah, I think thats an important area to talk about it. Parents play a very important role in controlling their childrens exposure to media, as well as improving the media literacy of their children. So, for example, talking about advertisements when they see advertisements together, talking about how advertisements are trying to do, what they are trying to sell, whether its good, whether its bad. Simply having a discussion about it with children once they get to an age where they can do that is important. And then for the younger ages, trying to control that exposure to advertisement.

NEARY: And, you know, control that exposure by what is another part, important part, of this and that is turning off the TV and getting them out and exercising.

Dr. THOMPSON: Yeah. Turning off the TV is an excellent option. For some families, thats not an option. So, you can do things like watching DVDs that dont have advertisements, you know, the certain types of advertisements in them. So, making certain choices about what type of media you use if you are going to use it.

Ms. WOOTAN: But, you know, even if you turn off the TV, our kids are exposed to billions of dollars worth of advertising. Its on the Internet, on their cellphone, which we give them to keep them safe. Its in the schools where were not there to guide our childrens food choices. Parents certainly need to educate their kids and help monitor their media use. But parents - the odds are stacked against us parents, with all of this very slick, sophisticated advertising.

We dont have psychologists to figure out how to get into our childrens heads and push their buttons to want this foods over that food. We dont have Spongebob, and Dora to try to entice our kids to eat certain foods. You know, we need to make it easier, make it possible for parents to feed their kids well by getting rid of junk food advertising. You know, the programming on Nick and Disney XD, I dont have any problems with it as a parent. I just dont like the ads.

My daughter should be able to kick back on a Saturday morning and watch some cartoons without being exposed to foods that are going to give her heart disease and diabetes and make her fat.

NEARY: Margo Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science and Public Interest. And we were also joined by Dr. Darcy Thompson who is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. WOOTAN: Thank you.

Dr. THOMPSON: Thank you.

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