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Food, fun — and fat

The battle to shrink the waistlines of America’s children focuses increasingly on how food is marketed, including the use if toys as lures

By Stephen Smith
Globe Staff / July 19, 2010

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The beguiling stuffed puppy stole the young girl’s heart.

Margo Wootan shepherded her daughter to McDonald’s a few years back. Their trips to the fast-food emporium were infrequent; Wootan, after all, makes her living promoting the virtues of a diet liberated from french fries and burgers. But even a member of the food police sometimes must submit to the entreaties of a child.

Little Camryn ordered a Happy Meal, the burger chain’s signature offering to children. And with it she got a prize: the toy dog. Once they were back home, an ad flickered on the TV.

“The commercial said, ‘Collect all 12,’ and so she came running in, and she said, ‘We need to go back to McDonald’s! I need to get the other puppies,’ ’’ Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, recalled. “I told her, ‘There’s no way we’re going back to McDonald’s so soon.’ ’’

For mother and daughter, it was potent proof of the power of food marketing.

As the nation struggles to tame an epidemic of obesity in young and old — and the heart disease and diabetes that are its inevitable handmaidens — attention has increasingly trained on marketing, everything from ads to prizes to Internet games.

Federal agencies are checking. Watchdogs are growling. And companies are responding.

The stakes — economically and medically — are substantial. A 2008 study by the Federal Trade Commission, based on data major food companies were compelled to provide, discovered that $1.6 billion a year was being spent marketing food to kids. The consequences can be measured in the waistlines of the young: In the past three decades, the percentage of children who are overweight has tripled. And research has shown that the more TV ads kids watch, the more likely they are to be fat.

All of which explains why the rhetoric remains so incendiary, with echoes of another epic public health imbroglio: the battle over tobacco. Last month, Wootan’s advocacy group exhorted McDonald’s to stop serving toys with their Happy Meals, tarring the company as “the stranger in the playground handing out candy to chil dren.’’ The company’s CEO demanded an apology, but none was forthcoming. In fact, the nutrition advocacy group has threatened to sue if McDonald’s doesn’t remove the toys.

Like tobacco, the fight over food marketing pivots on considerations of personal responsibility vs. corporate culpability, government intervention vs. company self-regulation, what’s safe vs. what’s not.

“In my mind, it’s almost impossible to think we can make any progress on childhood obesity unless marketing is reined in,’’ said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

A 2005 report commissioned by Congress set the tone for much of what has unfolded the past five years. That study, by the Institute of Medicine, declared that food and beverage marketing represented “at worst, a direct threat to the health of the next generation.’’

Industry leaders responded by establishing a consortium that pledged to reduce advertising of sugar- and fat-laden food and beverages during children’s TV shows.

“I’m sure the critics would say it’s because of their efforts,’’ said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers. “But I think the larger issue has been that the public has become very much aware of this problem.’’

There’s evidence that food companies have, in fact, adjusted their advertising, but little agreement on how big the change is, what effect it’s having on consumption, or even what constitutes healthier food.

A study released two weeks ago discovered that 2- to 11-year-olds were being exposed to fewer ads for candy and sugary beverages. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago reviewed TV ratings data and found, for example, that 2- to 5-year-olds were exposed to 41 percent fewer commercials for sweets from 2003 to 2007. But that same study found that fast-food advertising proliferated, with the biggest increase among adolescent viewers.

“I wasn’t surprised in some of the trends in reduction of the clearly unhealthy items,’’ said Lisa Powell, whose study appeared in the Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine. “I was surprised the fast-food advertising had increased so much.’’

When the Center for Science in the Public Interest analyzed food ads on the Nickelodeon cable channel last year, it concluded that nearly 80 percent peddled junk food — food with too much sugar or salt, or too many calories — a slight reduction from the 90 percent level found in 2005.

“When concerns have been raised about the cable networks and network TV running junk food ads, their response has been, ‘We’re not nutrition companies, so how can we decide which ads to run or not?’ ’’ said Mary Engle, associate director for advertising practices at the Federal Trade Commission. That’s why Congress has directed her agency and three others to develop uniform nutrition standards to guide advertisers and media companies.

McDonald’s and Burger King representatives said their companies have already adopted ad campaigns promoting only healthier fare. Commercials for Happy Meals showcase the option including chicken nuggets, low-fat milk, and apples, a McDonald’s spokesman said.

But there may be a disconnect between what’s on TV and what’s offered at the counter: When investigators from the Center for Science in the Public Interest ordered Happy Meals, they received fries 93 percent of the time — without being asked if they’d like a healthier option.

What they got 100 percent of the time was a toy.

“There’s the fun of a toy and time spent with parents, and that’s what the Happy Meal created,’’ McDonald’s spokesman Walt Riker said. “We reject the premise that toys were put in there to have children demand they go to McDonald’s.’’

But Kristin Lieb, a marketing specialist at Emerson College, said there’s little doubt what the company is trying to accomplish with its giveaways. The Federal Trade Commission reported that in 2006, fast-food restaurants including McDonald’s, Burger King, and others sold more than 1.2 billion children’s meals with toys to children 12 and younger.

“If I can build a relationship with you when you’re young and give you all kinds of thrilling experiences whether it’s playing in one of the McDonald’s playgrounds or giving you an exciting toy in a Happy Meal, the idea is you’re going to love those experiences so much that you’ll develop a preference for McDonald’s,’’ Lieb said.

Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston, has witnessed the potency of pop culture and food marketing in his practice — for good and ill.

One teenager struggled for years with his weight, until he saw the movie “Super Size Me,’’ which chronicles one man’s experience of eating nothing but McDonald’s food every day for a month. “He gave up fast food cold turkey,’’ Ludwig said, “and went on to lose a lot of weight.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.