Child obesity debate: Marketers bite back as fat fight flares up

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The release of two studies critical of kids' advertising has reopened a big, fat argument in the industry-are ads making kids fat? Likely, yes, concluded two studies-by the American Psychological Association and the Kaiser Family Foundation. No, we're already taking steps to stem the kiddie fat tide and parents can help, argued marketers.

The Kaiser report concluded that kids who consume the most media are the most obese, and the most likely reason is the food advertising on TV. The APA report went further, calling for curbs on advertising in kids' programming.

"We know that advertising is extensive and effective and a lot of it is for food items we wouldn't be recommending in the midst of an [obesity] crisis," said Victoria Rideout, VP-director of the Kaiser's Program for the Study of Entertainment, Media and Health.

"Most of these things are incremental purchases-purchases made because we set up our shelves so the Nickelodeon-branded stuff and Disney stuff is at kids' eye level," said an East-Coast retail buyer. "Sometimes I wonder if I'm causing people to be fat because I want to sell them more foods."

The twin reports brought a new focus to the advertising, which is likely to continue this week as a panel of the Senate Commerce Committee examines potential causes of childhood obesity, including marketing.

"The whole question of food advertising and advertising to children has heated up with broad proposals that we haven't seen since the Kidvid fight of the 1970s," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers. He was referring to failed efforts of the Federal Trade Commission to clamp down on kids' ads.

unfair blame?

Marketers countered that they are blamed unfairly. Kids aren't eating any more than they used to, they're just moving less because schools have cut back on sports programs and parents are afraid to let them play outside, they contend. "America is obese, but America is also more white-collar and more sedentary," said Dave Siegel, president of WonderGroup, a Cincinnati-based agency specializing in marketing to children.

However, those issues require difficult solutions, so advertising is being singled out as an easier target, said the critics.

"The child is not going to get in his car and go to the quick-service restaurant or do the shopping," said Mr. Jaffe. "Marketers have responded with alacrity. They're doing research, they're raising funds, they're changing their marketing," said Rachel Geller, chief strategic officer of Geppetto Group, New York, a WPP Group agency specializing in marketing to children.

Food and beverage manufacturers have been focused on developing healthier products, shifting advertising to reflect more active lifestyles and ramping up marketing efforts to shield themselves from blame. Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes all have policies barring advertising featuring or aimed at kids under age 12.

Entertainment executives said they have also become more mindful of the categories for which they license their characters. Time Warner's Warner Bros. over the last several years has licensed Looney Tunes characters such as Bugs Bunny for milk, water, juices and veggies. Executives at Viacom's Nickelodeon have also asked their licensees to explore healthier foods.

Bill MacLeod, an attorney who represents the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the concern about advertising is misdirected and ill-timed. "Marketers are offering nutritious choices to parents and kids, " he said. "Now is the worst time to shut down communications about foods that can fit into a healthy lifestyles."

contributing: kate macarthur, t.l. stanley, ira teinowitz, stephanie thompson

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