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The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), citing the childhood obesity epidemic, has called for food and beverage makers to dramatically cut back TV advertising of junk food to children, to reduce product placements catering to kids, and to nix TV-product tie-ins like SpongeBob Cheez-Its and Hostess Twinkies with yummy Shrek "ogre-green" filling. "Junk-food manufacturers," charged CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson, have "unfettered access to kids’ impressionable minds via advertising and marketing."
A spokesman for the Association of National Advertisers shot back that "If kids say they want something [at the store], the parent can say no."
But parents can tell you it can be easier to chew off a limb than resist that barrage of pleas that marketers term the "nag factor" or "pester power." Surely few parents who buy Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo Cereal believe it’s good for their kids.
The Grocery Manufacturers Association redirected the argument. It said "narrowly focusing on advertising and marketing" was wrong and getting childhood obesity under control "is going to take a lot more than that."
True, but CSPI never pretended to have a master plan for solving childhood obesity. There’s nothing wrong with targeting one facet of a larger problem. But CSPI is wrong in zooming in on TV advertising and programming when the problem is TV itself.
TV has been a serious contributor to childhood obesity at least since William Dietz and Steven Gortmaker asked the question in a landmark 1985 Pediatrics article: "Do We Fatten Our Children at the Television Set?" Countless subsequent surveys have found a cause-and-effect relationship between more TV and more fat. In 1993 Gortmaker and Dietz "estimated that almost a third of childhood obesity could be erased if TV viewing were reduced to an hour or less a week.
And advertising is a major factor. In the late 1970s kids watched about 20,000 commercials a year; now it’s about double that. A 1995 survey found food ads accounted for about half these, while over 90 percent of the foods were high in fat, sugar, and salt. In other words, junk food.
Moses wouldn’t care much for how we worship the TV.
Further, "Controlled studies on children’s choices have consistently shown that children exposed to advertising choose advertised food products at significantly higher rates than do those not exposed" according to a 2002 survey of peer-reviewed journal articles published since 1970. But TV’s pernicious contribution to pudginess is not just advertising. For example, if you’re fixated on TV you’re not doing other things. This doesn’t just mean aerobic exercise like beating up the kid brother. Reading burns calories.
The very act of watching TV also contributes to bad eating habits. Stanford University studies have found that kids consume anywhere from a fifth to a third (among black girls) of their calories while sitting glassy-eyed before the tube. Moreover, that food is considerably less healthy and fattier than what’s eaten at the table.
So yes, decreasing TV advertising and product tie-ins for junk foods would decrease their consumption. But the real culprit is the tube – or flat screen - itself. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, America’s children now watch a stunning 38.5 hours weekly of media – TV, video games, and the like. It’s a full-time job!
That’s the real travesty, and ultimately the only real protection for children are highly sophisticated instruments called "parents." They can regulate the number of hours watched and many can now lock out channels. They can also keep TVs out of the bedroom, yet almost 40% of children have a set there. And yes, those kids watch more TV (an extra 4.6 hours per week) and they are fatter.
Parents can also show moral authority by limiting their own TV watching. Unfortunately, Americans’ love of TV practically violates the First Commandment. And you’re not going to see a CSPI campaign against irresponsible parents, because the group is only interested in attacking corporate America.
CSPI may be able to shame some companies into changing their advertising practices, but no problem was ever solved by cutting it off at the leaves; it has to be struck at the root. Or in this case, at the remote control.