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Madison Avenue: Separating Fat from Fiction

Recently, I spoke at the Second National Forum on Obesity Policy, Regulation and Litigation in Chicago. As I recapped the events of the past few months, I was reminded that we still have a long way to go in communicating all of the efforts that the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the ad industry overall are making to combat childhood obesity.

From our industry's self-regulatory system, the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), which monitors the advertisements that potentially take advantage of a child's credulity, to the Ad Council's “Small Steps” program, which strives to educate the public with numerous methods and examples of how to combat obesity, we are working to do our part.

But what concerns me most is that, despite all of this positive and progressive action, the advertising industry continues to be targeted as a leading contributor of this epidemic.

What is even more frustrating is that there is an ever-growing body of evidence that demonstrates that advertising is not a major factor in the obesity challenge that we increasingly face around the world.

In Sweden and Quebec, for example, they banned all food advertising, yet their obesity rates are not lower than many societies that have no such restrictions and substantial rates of food advertising.

Also, in the United States, where food and restaurant advertising is relatively uniform throughout the nation, there are wide variations in obesity rates from locality to locality, even in closely contiguous areas. This type of substantial variation would not be expected if advertising were a major engine generating this problem.

In fact, recent data provided by Nielsen Media Research and Nielsen/NetRatings and analyzed by Georgetown Economic Services LLC for the ANA and the Grocery Manufacturers of America found that, during the past 10 years, food, beverage and restaurant television advertising expenditures, as well as the number of food, beverage and restaurant ads seen by children under age 12, have declined.

This decline took place during the very period cited as the time during which obesity rates grew the most and at the fastest rates. The number of food and restaurant commercials seen annually by children 12 and under, for example, peaked at nearly 6,000 in 1994 but declined by over 13% over the next 10 years. Adjusting for inflation, in order to hold the value of dollars constant over the same time period, TV ads for foods and restaurants reached nearly $6 billion in 1994 but dropped below $5 billion in 2004.

As noted earlier, the advertising community is committed to helping combat obesity through public-service advertising and the rapidly accelerating development and advertising of new and improved food, beverage and restaurant items that are lower in fat and calories.

Our community, however, needs to strongly oppose efforts to restrict food and restaurant advertising that will take us down regulatory and legislative blind alleys under the guise of obesity prevention.