For decades, cereal commercials spawned towering icons of childhood
nostalgia. The mention of Tony the Tiger or the Trix rabbit is bound to evoke
fond memories of sitting with a bowl of cereal in front of the TV with the
volume low to avoid waking Mom and Dad.
No more. Gripped by anxiety over child obesity, some parents now see
these images as corporate villains: Cap'n Crunch is really a pirate, and
Toucan Sam is a vulture. Pressure to slim kids down may now force the networks
to go on a diet. Last week, Kraft Foods—with a clear eye on Capitol
Hill—declared that it will curtail advertising of sugary cereals and snack
foods on media aimed at kids 6 to 11 years old. A new program will beef up
nutritional labeling. Products that don't meet the company's “Sensible
Solution” criteria for healthy foods won't be advertised to kids. (Kraft
says it doesn't advertise to preschoolers at all.)
Over the next 18 months, the food giant will phase out kids-TV
commercials for cereals like Fruity Pebbles and Oreo Os or snack foods like
Chips Ahoy and Nutter Butters. That's striking fear into the hearts of
ad-sales reps at kids-TV outlets like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. Food is
the second-largest children's-advertising category, and Kraft is the biggest
player. And children 6-11 compose a third of Nick's and Cartoon's average
viewers every day. If the largest manufacturer is nervous enough to publicly
declare a big pullback, others are likely to follow.
Child obesity has become a prickly issue over the past three years.
Having made inroads into fighting teen drinking and smoking, now they're
moving on to new causes.
Food manufacturers are concerned about the number of lawsuits by
customers blaming fast-food companies for their obesity and health problems.
But is pitching fat-laden Cheetos to children different from using Joe Camel to
sell cigarettes that later cause lung cancer? Tobacco companies successfully
defended themselves for 30 years before court losses cost them tens of billions
of dollars. Who knows where this litigation arc will take food companies?
Kraft, of course, is hypersensitive to these threats. The company is 85%
owned by Altria, which also owns tobacco company Phillip Morris. More worrisome
for TV networks is the possibility of tight government restrictions on food
companies' advertising. The Federal Trade Commission isn't likely to take
any action on its own, but various Congressmen have periodically moved to
legislate snack-food ads.
Companies are voluntarily increasing the amount and prominence of
nutritional labeling. In September, General Mills started using whole grains in
all of its cereals, including Trix and Lucky Charms.
Networks are also trying to preempt regulation. Nickelodeon notes that
it is devoting a big chunk of promotion time to public-service commercials
urging children to turn off the TV and play. One industry executive says that,
when Burger King wanted to license Dora the
Explorer for a kids meal promotion, Nickelodeon executives insisted
that a piece of fruit be included.
The networks aren't chatty. “It's too soon to know how the impact
of this new marketing direction will affect our business and the
marketplace,” says a Cartoon Network spokesman.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 10% of preschoolers and
15% of children ages 6-19 are overweight. The obesity rate for adolescents has
tripled since 1980, and pediatricians are increasingly seeing weight-related
problems more common in the offices of geriatricians, like diabetes, high-blood
pressure and depression.
Placing the blame
The victimization culture, of course, blames food manufacturers and TV
networks. Cereal and snack-food companies make all sorts of sugary and fatty
foods catering to the tastes of children. And, of course, they spend heavily
trying to woo children with messages cleverly targeted at making sure they yelp
at a certain spot in the cereal aisle.
Now it seems that responsibility should lie primarily with the parent.
“Oreos don't come into the house by themselves,” Jim McNeal, a former
Texas A&M marketing professor.
However, some studies do show that kids' exposure to advertising does
affect their eating habits and health. Last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation
found that the amount of television that kids watch correlates to their weight,
and not simply because they don't get outside to play.
“The ads children are exposed to do influence their choices of
food,” Kaiser Vice President Vicky Rideout said when the study was released.
“They influence how many products they ask their parents for in the grocery
store ... and ultimately those requests do indeed have a fairly high rate of
success in terms of influencing what parents buy.”
So what's the immediate damage to networks like Nick? Kraft spends
about $90 million, out of a $1.3 billion budget, advertising to kids. Nielsen
Monitor-Plus estimates that about $27 million of that goes to Nick, Cartoon Net
and Toon Disney. Kraft says it will shift some of those ad dollars to promote
healthier foods to kids, so the networks perhaps won't lose all of the
While Kraft has made a noble gesture, don't expect the onslaught of TV
marketing to kids to stop—or even slow down. Even if food companies curtail
advertising, they will still reach young TV addicts with licensed characters
and an avalanche of related products. Look at the goodies already on the
grocery aisle: Networks are cashing in on SpongeBob Rice Krispie Treats or
SpongeBob Keebler E.L. Fudge Cookies. Says one children's TV executive,
“That's where the money is.”
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