Child Obesity Ads Blame Kids

obesity ads, childhood obesity

Public service or public shaming?

When public officials in Georgia decided to feature obese kids in their Stop Childhood Obesity campaign, they say they were just trying to get kids to listen. Kids warning other kids about the cause and effect of getting fat? What could be more effective?

But ever since Bobby, Tamika, Tina and Carlos showed up on TV and billboards — talking about a love of donuts, living with diabetes and getting made fun of by other kids — parents, health officials and child advocates have seethed with outrage, calling the 30-second spots unfair and counterproductive.

They also put the blame squarely on round kids.

Critics say that not only do these ads further stigmatize overweight and obese children, but they harm exactly the group the say they are trying to help.

Even worse, I thinks, is that the ads conclude fat kids got what they deserved.

Parents are blamed a bit, too. But no where in the Stop Childhood Obesity are advertisers, food manufacturers and schools benefiting financially from selling sugary drinks and treats at school even hinted at.

Take Bobby. His over-the-top ad starts with “I love donuts,” and closes with venomous degradation of vegetables and his mother’s lack of kitchen skills. We get stats about obesity rates in the state, but once Bobby’s done talking you’re pretty sure he has brought on his weight problems himself — well, him and his permissive, stupid, and likely very fat parents.

Sure, he’s nearly reduced to tears of ecstasy when speaking of his love for the flashing “Hot Donuts” sign. He practically giggles when he talks about squirreling away chips in his bedroom. But if this hadn’t been a fully scripted spot and Bobby (or “Bobby”) was speaking straight from his heart, he would have said “Krispy Creme” and “Doritos.” Brands were genericized to protect innocent food manufacturers — who market their wares unregulated to indulgent children.

So many people and, apparently, the state of Georgia, think of obesity as an individual’s problem. A weakness of will. A lack of personal responsibility. Parents of fat kids should have said “no”! McDonald’s doesn’t make decisions for kids, Mom does!

Were it only so simple.

Food sellers — be it of hamburgers in cute packages, heavily salted orange cheese pasta meals, liquified fruits (also known as juice) — have practically no limits on how they get and keep our kids’ attention. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

Mark Bittman rants on The New York Times opinion page today about new “guidelines” for food manufacturers in how they advertise to kids. First, they have five years to implement these new guidelines. And, oh, it’s totally voluntary.

Bittman points out that federal agencies whose opinions the Federal Trade Commission considered when putting together the guidelines all agree that marketing bad food to kids works. It just does. Which makes the fact that the guidelines are voluntary suspect.

Bittman writes:

We need legal action, not voluntary guidelines. The federal agencies that are involved with the F.T.C. in this request for less marketing to children — the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Agriculture Department — deserve credit for acknowledging marketing’s impact. If their suggested rules were followed, food advertising would be drastically different. “There’d be a large number of products they’d no longer be advertising,” says Marion Nestle, a New York University professor of nutrition and public health and the author of the book “What to Eat.”

Large numbers? No longer be advertising? I can only imagine which brands and products Nestle is talking about.

Michelle Obama tried a strategy of shaming the food manufacturers into using their marketing skills to promote healthy food and also quit selling garbage to kids (my words, not the diplomatic First Lady’s). I haven’t noticed any drastic voluntary changes at the store. Have you?

I think until we bring food advertising to the table, so to speak, in trying to deal with the problem of child health, we’re not going to turn this obesity ship around. Marketing directed at kids — and the billions in rewards food producers get from it — is the obese elephant in the room (offering your kids a bite of his donut).

Sure, there’s personal responsibility, but there’s public responsibility too. When is Georgia going to make some ads about that?

Photo: Georgia Children’s Health Alliance

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