We worry so much about the many dangers to our children, like drugs and pedophiles and violence. But we often take for granted what might very well be the largest danger of all to our kids: the hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year on ads designed to get them hooked on junk food.
That’s why I think it’s important that this week more than 550 health professionals and organizations signed an open letter to McDonald’s, imploring the fast food giant to stop marketing junk food to kids. Many major metropolitan newspapers across the country are running full-page ads featuring the letter.
The letter doesn’t so go far as to ask McDonald’s to stop selling junk food to kids. It only asks them to stop aggressively advertising such foods to children.
Will it make any difference?
Critics say the campaign, organized by the nonprofit watchdog group “Corporate Accountability International,” is just another attempt to undercut consumer freedom, just another effort by the food police to dictate what you and your children can eat.
McDonald’s food may be junk, say such critics, but it’s a personal choice. No one is physically forcing children to eat Big Macs. Where are parents anyway? Why don’t they assume their authority and take responsibility? Are they just looking for someone other than themselves to blame because their kids are fat and unhealthy?
No one, not even McDonald’s, doubts that we are witnessing an escalating epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease in children. In 1971, only 4 percent of 6- to 11-year-old kids were obese. By 2004, the figure had more than quadrupled, to nearly 20 percent, with nearly 40 percent now considered overweight. A lack of exercise probably isn’t the cause of the increase, because many studies show that exercise levels in kids haven’t changed much in the past few decades. What, then, lies at the root of the crisis?
We know that kids in the U.S. today consume more calories, and more junk food, than any similarly aged population in the history of the world. But why, and who is responsible? McDonald’s places the blame for the situation squarely on the shoulders of parents. The problem, they say, is a breakdown in parental responsibility.
I am a staunch advocate for personal freedom and parental responsibility, which, you may be surprised to hear, is in fact precisely why I stand with the health professionals on this one. You see, there is a major problem with the marketing of junk food to malleable kids that is almost never recognized.
It is this: The ads are almost deliberately designed to compromise parental authority. The industry calls it “the pester factor.” The PR companies who produce these ads speak happily of making kids “obnoxious,” of getting them to “drive their parents crazy.”
The idea is to get kids to want junk food so much that they nag their parents to take them to McDonald’s, and to buy them other foods they have seen advertised, eventually breaking down parents’ resistance. In the face of the relentless barrage of such advertisements, how many parents are able to hold their ground?
Is this one of the chief reasons there has been such a pervasive loosening of parental rules regarding food? Confronted with a constant stream of ads for junk food, and its nearly ubiquitous availability, parental authority around food issues has often declined to the point of becoming parental resignation.
The “pester factor” has enormous economic implications, as well. Advertisers estimate that one out of three fast food trips take place as a result of a child’s nagging.
The marketing strategy is effective, but it’s insidious. Traditionally, it has been parents who have taken leadership in deciding what their kids are going to eat. But McDonald’s and other fast food companies spend billions of dollars a year on ad campaigns that target children, with the goal of taking that leadership away from the parents, and shifting it onto the kids themselves. In this way, the ads not only promote the consumption of junk food, with all the baneful health consequences we are witnessing today. What may be even worse is that at the same time the aggressive marketing of junk food undermines parental authority. The continual onslaught of such ads leads the parents to feel like bad guys for not giving kids what they want, and erodes the respect that parents receive from their kids.
To make the ads even more dubious, young children are not capable of understanding that the advertising is intended to manipulate their feelings and alter their behavior. Given that children can’t comprehend the persuasive intent behind ads, is it ethical to advertise to them foods that are conclusively proven to be unhealthy? Should it even be legal?