U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and co-chair of the Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity, told government and industry officials as well as watch dog groups gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear the Kaiser Family Foundation's report on the issue that there is a "lot of pressure to move forward, to see regulations that move this forward. The moment is now." Brownback called on the nation's food advertisers to "step up" and advertise healthier products while assuring them that they are not the whole problem.
The task force expects to put forward its ideas on ways to combat childhood obesity by modifying marketing practices and encouraging more exercise and nutrition education by mid- to late summer.
Kaiser's report, "Food for Thought: Television Food Advertising to Children in the United States," excoriates the media for fostering an environment in which 34% of the ads children see are for candy and snack foods, 28% for cereals and 10% for fast food. "Kids 8-12-years old see on average 21 food ads a day--more than 7,600 a year--most of which are for candy and snacks (34%), cereal (28%), and fast food (10%)," it says. "Teenagers are next at 17 a day or about 6,000 a year. The smallest fry actually see the fewest food ads, with children 2-7 seeing about a dozen ads a day, which is attributed in part to a TV diet heavy on public TV and limited-commercial outlets like Disney."
Reaction from the advertising industry was swift.
"One of the stated goals of the Kaiser report was to 'help inform the efforts of policymakers,' and the report has some important information," Dan Jaffe, VP/government relations for the Association of National Advertisers, wrote on his blog minutes after the presentation. "Unfortunately, the report is frozen in place. We cannot move forward if we are so fixated on the past that we fail to see the dramatic progress already made in the present and the rapid steps and firm commitments that the advertising community has made to take even greater strides to combat obesity in the immediate future."
Jaffe detailed the steps taken over the past 18 months, which includes the establishment of an 11-member Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary self-regulation program that includes giants such as Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, and General Mills, and new guidelines issued by the National Advertising Review Council.
Mary Sophos, SVP/chief government affairs officer for the GMA/FPA, which represents grocers and food producers, said the group is working with the Ad Council on its new campaign to create public service announcements that would "bring important messages to parents and kids about health, nutrition and physical activity."
During the presentation, Vicky Rideout, VP/director of the Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health at the Kaiser Family Foundation, focused on the effect of televised food ads on tweens, children ages 8 to 12.
"Children of all ages see thousands of food ads a year, but tweens see more than any other age group," she said. "Since tweens are at an age where they're just becoming independent consumers, understanding what type of advertising they are exposed to is especially important."
The food and beverage industry has been under pressure to decrease the amount of "junk food" advertising to kids and to increase the amount of advertising for healthier options such as fruit and vegetables.
The Kaiser study found that for each age group studied, food was the top product seen advertised. "Thirty-two percent of all ads seen by 2-7 year olds were for food, while 25% of ads seen by 8-12 year olds and 22% of ads seen by 13-17 year olds were for food," it said. "Of all genres on TV, shows specifically designed for children under 12 have the highest proportion of food advertising (50% of all ad time)."
Brownback, who identified himself as being "a free-market, conservative person," said that, nevertheless, "if people are not working together and things are not happening, you will see a much more regulatory regime stepping forward. This situation is significant, and it is known. Shame on us if we can't figure this out and work this out together."
A representative of the Girl Scouts of America told Brownback that when girls talk about healthy living, they see it as a whole composed of parts - working out, diet and emotional health holistically - and asked if this was part of the task force's conversation in terms of nutrition and the media's effect on children.
It is not, Brownback said. The task force's work is targeted specifically on advertising and marketing. "It's a pretty specific topic," he said.