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'Let's Move' Ignores Influence of Advertisers

barbie-pop-tarts-kelloggThe First Lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign, which focuses on nutrition and exercise education, and access to good, affordable food, is a start to improving all children’s lives — not just the fat ones. Her program promises to institutionalize what some parents, educators and community activists have been trying to do for years, which is offer something besides crap to kids and people with limited resources.

Having more and nutritious options, though, won’t be enough, especially when baby carrots and ranch have to compete with super sugary, super salty, super fatty processed foods that feature a child’s favorite cartoon character, TV show or sports franchise. Cinderella — that small-boned beauty — knows the key to true hapiness is a bag of chewy “fruit” snacks.

If you’re sick of steering the kids away from cereals featuring SpongeBob or Barbie or Transformers, get ready to hunker down for more.

Reseachers at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy found that, in large supermarkets, the number of food products cross-promoted with entertaiment exploded between 2006 and 2008. In just those three years, the number of cross-promoted products increased 78 percent.

You probably won’t be surprised that only 18 percent of those products met any kind of nutrition standards for food sold to kids and yet, clearly, that’s the customer they’re going after. More celebrities, movies, cartoons and sports are showing up on packages in the food aisles and less and less of what they’re promoting bears any resemblance to actual food. Which is a pretty mixed message for kids. American Idol, good/American Idol fruit punch, bad.

And this is where I wish the First Lady would have gone with “Let’s Move.” Because her program puts most of the focus on personal responsibility — important to be sure, but it’s not everything. There’s no call for corporate responsibility; there’s no urging lawmakers to create restrictions.

Really smart people get paid lots and lots of money to come up with foods that appeal to kids — and selling strategies that convince parents to buy it. Remember: only 18 percent of it gets the kids any bang for the calories ingested.

And this is pretty rich: the Yale study found that 65 percent of products bearing the cross-promotions were from companies that had signed a pledge to limit marketing to children. The difference? They pledged to limit TV ads (in other words, they found a loophole in their beneficence).

“The marketing of foods with low nutritional value to children in grocery stores should raise as much concern as it does on television or the Internet,” said Jennifer L. Harris, PhD, Director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Foods with promotions targeted at children contained significantly more sugar than foods targeted at other age groups, and companies who have pledged to reduce unhealthy marketing to kids are the biggest offenders.”

It’s never a good time to be a fat kid in America; overweight people have always been easy target of jokes, difficult to dress, and at the mercy of judgmental relatives. Now they’re the reason health insurance is expensive, they’ll break their parents’ hearts by dying first, they’re burdened with the pressure of making the president’s wife look good.

Until the everyone catches up with Salon’s Kate Harding — who brushes off obesity hysteria with pretty compelling facts and worries “Let’s Move” will hurt who it is supposed to help — childhood obesity will remain public enemy No. 1. Like any weight loss battle, dramatic results won’t be typical. They also won’t be possible if we continue to allow marketers such direct and unregulated access to kids. Barbie Pop Tarts? Really?

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