While the surgeon general did not initially single out
fast-feeders, they quickly became a target . Packaged foods by then
had already been required to include nutritional information
labels. At the time, restaurants did not. In fact, fast-feeders
were in an arms race of bigger servings of sodas and fries. It was
the perfect setup for a work like Morgan Spurlock's "Super Size
Me," which made for stark visuals and easily digestible
entertainment that drew consumer attention to the issue.
Where does advertising fit in to all of this, especially when
dealing with the subject of childhood obesity? Dale Kunkel,
professor of communication at the University of Arizona and
longtime kids' marketing researcher, called it a "significant
contributor." But he also pointed to a number of other contributing
factors, including the decline of activity among kids, fewer family
meals and the proliferation of fast-food outlets in the latter part
of the 20th century.
"In the last 10 to 12 years there's been much more attention
paid to childhood obesity ... [but] no one is suggesting that
advertising is the sole contributor," Mr. Kunkel said.
Still, the $200 billion fast-food industry's massive size ad
budgets are hard to ignore -- especially considering kids' taste
for the stuff.
"Quick-serve restaurants have gotten a great deal of attention
because kids like [fast] food," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP-government
relations at the Association of National Advertisers. "Anything
that 's of significant interest to kids is going to get a lot of
"For the children," of course, is an effective rallying cry. But
aside from the 1990 Children's Television Act (which in part limits
the amount of time broadcasters can devote to ads in children's
programs) and the 1998 Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act
(which deals with parental consent and data collection),
self-regulation is still the order of the day in adland.
Can self-regulation work?
The industry's self-regulation with kids' marketing started with
the 1974 founding of the Children's Advertising Review Unit, which
"evaluates child-directed advertising and promotional material in
all media to advance truth, accuracy and consistency." CARU is part
of the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council, formerly the National
Advertising Review Council.
In June 2004, the National Advertising Review Council issued its
white paper, "Guidance for Food Advertising Self-Regulation," with
a section on marketing to kids. The Institute of Medicine, at the
request of Congress and sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, released a 2006 report, "Food Marketing to
Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" about the effects of
marketing to children and obesity.
That report sparked wide response from both sides, with those in
the industry saying that the report couldn't find a relationship
between childhood obesity and advertising. Mr. Kunkel, who sat on
the report panel, said that marketing-industry advocates quoted it
out of context, and that the tobacco industry did the same thing
when it came under fire. "The report says that we cannot point at
food marketing unequivocally as the direct cause of
obesity....[But] food marketing to children is a clear contributor
to childhood obesity."
The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative , a
self-regulating body that focuses specifically on foods and how
they're marketed to children, came about after the Institute of
Medicine's report. The voluntary initiative includes 16 of the
biggest food marketers; McDonald's and Burger King are the only
restaurants on the list.
Elaine Kolish, VP-director of CFBAI, said that when it comes to
fast food, McDonald's and Burger King, after revamping kids' menus,
among other efforts, are "leading children's advertising for fast
food...I think that 's a really positive thing, because it helps
popularize fruit and dairy to kids."
Indeed, McDonald's has introduced a Happy Meal featuring apple
slices, fewer fries and a low-fat dairy option. In 1979, its
hamburger meal was about 630 calories. Today, the hamburger Happy
Meal is about 465 calories.
Whether demand is there is another issue: You can lead a kid to
carrots, but you can't make him eat. Sales of kids' meals at U.S.
fast-food restaurants have been declining since 2007, according to
NPD Group, with visits last year dropping 5% over the previous
year. Whether this is through parents being more health conscious
in their choices for their children or their kids snubbing
better-for-you foods is debatable.
As part of McDonald's education effort, its characters have been
pressed into service urging children to exercise rather than to
eat. Marlena Peleo-Lazar, chief creative officer at McDonald's USA,
said that the chain is using new characters, such as a young boy
named Ferris who teaches his pet goat the importance of a balanced
diet, to make nutrition interesting for kids.
"We think lecturing about nutrition doesn't make kids embrace
the subject, so [we're trying a] highly inventive and creative way
that kids will process and enjoy it," Ms. Peleo-Lazar said.
McDonald's is far from alone in those initiatives. The National
Restaurant Association launched its LiveWell program last year.
Nineteen chains, including Burger King, Chili's and IHOP, pledged
to offer and promote a selection of items that meet nutritional
criteria based on health organizations' scientific recommendations,
including the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines.
Darden Restaurants linked with First Lady Michelle Obama's
effort to abolish childhood obesity and is overhauling kids'
offerings in its Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains.
Burger King in November 2011 rebranded its entire kids' platform
and introduced the BK Crown program. The chain stopped
automatically including fries in kids' meals and offered oatmeal as
part of its kids' breakfast menu.
As for the future of self-regulation, the prospect of new
guidelines from the government is uncertain. The Interagency
Working Group -- comprising the Federal Trade Commission, Food and
Drug Administration, Agriculture Department and Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention -- was instructed by Congress to prepare
voluntary guidelines that would limit the marketing of certain
foods and beverages to children.
The group in the last year released a draft of the guidelines.
They were met with strong resistance from industry advocates, who
considered them draconian, extreme and unprecedented. Some said
that the guidelines, though nominally voluntary, were essentially
back-door legislation that could be in violation of the First
Among the proposed restrictions, marketers would not be allowed
to use kid-oriented animated or licensed characters, which could
implicate everyone from Ronald McDonald to Snap, Crackle and
As part of an attempt to counter the stronger proposals drafted
by the Obama administration, the CFBAI said it would, for the first
time, enforce the same nutritional standards for all 16 of its
voluntary members rather than letting the companies pick their own
By December, a rider was tacked onto the omnibus spending bill
that required the IWG to do a cost-benefit analysis of
food-marketing guidelines, weighing a possible reduction in
childhood obesity, with what opponents say will be an inevitable
reduction in advertising jobs and the loss of sales for
Susan Linn, director at Center for a Commercial-Free Childhood,
said that the cost-benefit-analysis move was "just another way of
postponing" government recommendations and added that the industry
did a huge amount of lobbying to diminish the IWG's ability to
release guidelines. "Self-regulation doesn't work when it comes to
marketing to kids," she said. "We shouldn't be marketing anything
to kids. We should be marketing to parents."
Ms. Kolish said that the CFBAI intends to continue on its path
of self-regulation regardless of whether the government is able to
"The heat is going to stay on," said Mr. Jaffe. "I can assure
you, it may not happen right now, but we will see more legislation
and more efforts in this area. There's a tremendous amount of
effort to try and link advertising to obesity."
And like it or not, Ronald McDonald -- like Joe Camel before him
-- is the most-recognizable face of advertising in an embattled