Julian Pecquet reports that 19 senators from rural states have written a letter to the heads of four federal agencies demanding that they “justify their call for stringent voluntary restrictions on marketing food marketing to children”:
The letter to the agency heads, spearheaded by Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NE), requests the agencies to explain how they linked marketing to obesity. It also questions their nutritional recommendations and inquires about the economic impact to certain food sectors such as cereals, meats and cheese.
And it raises concerns with possible restrictions on the food industry’s support for “school and community philanthropic activities, including sports teams, literacy programs, and other health-promoting youth activities” and the “economic impact to schools and communities.”
A good place to look for answers about the links between advertising and obesity may be the White House’s obesity report, which found that food and beverage companies rely on a “full range” of marketing techniques to attract young consumers and that some — like the use of licensed characters — are particularly “effective and pervasive”:
Research conducted by the Sesame Street Workshop in 2005 found a strong influence of popular licensed characters on preschoolers’ food preferences. When preschoolers were asked if they would rather eat broccoli or a Hershey’s chocolate bar, 78% of the children chose the chocolate bar and only 22% chose broccoli. When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, however, 50% of the children chose broccoli. Not surprisingly, food marketers’ use of licensed characters in cross promotions targeting children has increased in recent years. At the same time, the nutritional quality of the products promoted by these characters has decreased.
Undoubtedly, the the Elmo sticker is more frequently appended to the Hershey’s bar than the broccoli. A recent study found that some of the nation’s’ largest food companies have “nearly doubled the use of licensed characters over the past four years, increasing from use in 8.8% of advertisements in 2005 to 15.2% in 2009. Roughly half of all advertisements with these characters are for foods in the lowest nutritional category,” it concluded.
The increases occurred despite the food industry’s voluntary pledge to advertise healthier foods, suggesting the senators may right in raising concerns about the restrictions. Only, they’re asking the wrong questions to the wrong crowd — their inquiry should focus on how the industry can “justify” the advertising increases, not why the government is demanding tougher — but still voluntary — advertising rules.