Harkin Gives Marketers No Reason to Trust His Words

An Ad Age Editorial

Published on .

Perhaps food and beverage marketers should spend a billion dollars to send Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, back to college for a business course. Or maybe they can send him to finishing school to learn some basic manners.

No one should be surprised by Mr. Harkin's response to the Federal Trade Commission study examining marketing aimed at kids. The study found that marketers were spending $1.6 billion on such marketing. That's $8.4 billion less than the $10 billion figure Congress and others had been bandying about. And, mind you, this was based on 2006 figures, before a number of food companies signed an agreement not to market to kids under 12.

Mr. Harkin's response: "This study confirms what I have been saying for years. Industry needs to step up to the plate and use their innovation and creativity to market healthy foods to our kids. That $1.6 billion could be used to attract our kids to healthy snacks, tasty cereals, fruits and vegetables."

Mr. Harkin is a politician, and the breed is not known for saying "I was wrong" -- especially when it comes to making money grabs. It's quite possible Mr. Harkin believes that in a town park somewhere sits $1.6 billion in unmarked bills to be dispensed as he sees fit. Perhaps Mr. Harkin thinks soda and candy makers, together with fast-food marketers, should advertise products they don't sell.

The message to marketers becomes clear: Don't bother cooperating with the government. Your best efforts aren't good enough; only legislation will work.

When we broached the subject at this time last year, we congratulated marketers for rising "above the sad truth that politicians, parents and the media prefer to blame the easy target of advertising instead of tackling the entrenched social, economic and educational problems that have led to the obesity issue."

But we closed with this warning: "Six months or two years from now, despite millions of dollars of advertising being pulled or redirected, America's kids -- for blindingly obvious reasons having nothing to do with marketing -- will still be getting fat. Consumers, watchdog groups and Congress will still be looking for someone to blame. And it certainly won't be themselves."

We guess the polite thing to do would be to thank Tom Harkin for proving us right. But we wish he hadn't.
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