It was a good day for our nation’s children when first lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last month USDA’s plans to regulate advertising of food to children in public schools. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 mandated the Department of Agriculture to set guidelines for school wellness policies in food and nutrition.
I could not help wondering whether we might be a healthier nation today had such policies been put in place when this issue of advertising to children first emerged. Some 30 years ago, I researched and wrote my doctoral dissertation on preschool and elementary schoolchildren’s perceptions of TV commercials. As a doctoral student in the business school at Indiana University, I had become concerned by the findings of the Federal Trade Commission’s hearings, held in the late 1970s, on the marketing of sugared cereals to children.
The issue has been debated and discussed, over and over, for more than three decades. While leaders in Washington have debated, the childhood obesity rate has climbed and climbed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity rate for children aged 6-11 increased from 7 percent in 1980 to nearly 18 percent in 2012. And the obesity rate for adolescents aged 12-19 increased from 5 percent to almost 21 percent during the same period.
Many in our country, including a number of leaders in the food industry, are coming to acknowledge the importance of doing the right thing for America’s children. We are finally addressing the problem, thanks to the leadership of Obama and Vilsack, among others.
Children are not adults. They do not have the same capacity as grown-ups to critically and accurately evaluate messages they receive. Research has repeatedly shown that cognitive skills, including reasoning and judgment, take years to develop. The research I conducted for my dissertation showed young children do not fully understand the purpose and complexity of well-crafted marketing messages. More recent research has found that even older children, who understand that the purpose of advertising is to sell a product, are still not able to effectively deploy this knowledge in their decision-making.
The announcement by the first lady and the secretary is good policy and, I think, long overdue. Schools would be banned from allowing advertising for foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt and that do not meet federal nutrition rules for foods served in our nation’s public schools.
The ban would include advertising for such products on scoreboards, on vending machines and even on cups in cafeterias.
Yet, this policy proposal has its detractors. One of the critics, the School Superintendents Association in Washington, D.C., questions the role of the federal government and argues there is no need for the policy because the market is already correcting itself. It is true that the obesity rate among children and adolescents appears to be leveling. But it is also true that businesses advertise because advertising works. It motivates consumers to buy all kinds of products; if it did not do that, businesses wouldn’t advertise. And it is worth noting that the American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and others in the industry, has taken a position supporting the changes, calling them common-sense efforts.
Critics have also argued this is a case of Big Brother watching over individual choices. It would be more accurate, however, to recognize the policy as support for parents who are teaching their children to adopt healthy eating habits. Advertisers should not get between parents and their children.
We cannot go back and change the policies of the past three decades. But we can learn something from studying the consequences of not addressing a problem for 30 years.
Obesity is a very painful thing for a child. And the obesity epidemic hurts us as a society.
Adults have an obligation to be honest and do the right thing for our children. I can think of no good argument for using public schools as a venue for promoting unhealthy choices to our children.