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Should Food Advertising to Youths be Regulated?

“Make your buck go further at McDonalds!” Weighing in at 19 grams of fat and 390 calories, the $1 McDouble cheeseburger aims to fill you up without emptying your wallet. Fast food advertisements appear everywhere, from billboards on the side of the highway to children’s TV shows, and brand recognition can make all the difference. In fact, in a 2007 study by Stanford University, researchers found that young children perceived burgers in McDonalds packaging to taste better than identical food in unbranded packaging, showing that children are certainly influenced by advertising (Robinson, et al. par. 7). Psychological influences are also known to adversely affect one’s opinion of food. Consider the movie “Super Size Me,” which drove society into outrage about the perceived unhealthiness of McDonalds’ food, setting the stage for the company to introduce healthier menu items such as salads and for court rulings that required fast food restaurants to publish nutrition facts for all of their entrees. Indeed, a company’s public image can make or break its bottom-line, and although advertising has a strong effect on many people, the decision to buy a product rests with the consumer. Advertising to children in the food industry should not be further regulated, as it is the job of good parenting to instill the value of moderation.

Adolescent Obesity: a hefty problem

Adolescent obesity is an increasingly common and dangerous issue facing American children. In fact, the Center for Disease Control asserts that “during the past 20 years there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States. In 2009, only Colorado and the District of Columbia had a prevalence of obesity less than 20%.” (CDC) According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), obesity is defined as when someone weighs more than 10% of their recommended weight based on various factors such as height and body type. (par. 2) Most cases of obesity aren’t due to any medical maladies, but simply to the fact that today’s adolescents eat more than they burn off during exercise, assuming they get any exercise at all. In an article on childhood obesity, the Mayo Clinic claims that common factors that cause obesity also include one’s home situation and that “if [a] child comes from a family of overweight people, he or she may be more likely to put on excess weight, especially in an environment [with] high-calorie food […]” (par. 4). High stress levels are partly to blame as well, especially if there has been a great family tragedy such as a death or divorce that could drive kids to have comfort foods to help deal with their stress.

No matter how kids start overeating, however, obesity has disastrous effects which can last a lifetime. The most serious consequence of obesity is an early death. William H. Dietz of the New England Medical Center states that while “few studies have examined the long-term effects of childhood obesity on adult disease […] obesity present in childhood or adolescence seems to increase the likelihood of adult morbidity and mortality” (par. 1). Obesity that starts when a child is very young often will develop into a lifelong problem, and according to a 1993 aggregation of studies on childhood obesity, “about a third (26 to 41%) of obese preschool children were obese as adults, and about half (42 to 63%) of obese school-age children were obese as adults. For all studies and across all ages, the risk of adult obesity was at least twice as high for obese children as for nonobese children” (Serdula, Ivery and Coates). Other effects of obesity include everything from sleeping disorders to Type II diabetes. Heart attacks and blood clots are more common among sufferers.

You Deserve a Break Today: Fast Food as a Lifestyle

A root cause of much of the obesity facing American children today, fast food isn’t the healthiest meal that one can consume, but it is the cheapest, which is a common reason that lower income families tend to eat more of their meals at fast food restaurants. According to a study by Jason P. Block, MD, of the Tulane University School of Medicine, “the link between fast food restaurants and black and low-income neighborhoods may contribute to the understanding of environmental causes of the obesity epidemic in these populations” (Block, Scribner and DeSalvo). From my own experience, for under $8 at McDonalds, one can get 2 McDouble cheeseburgers, a medium tub of fries, a large soda, and a small dessert. The McDonalds Nutrition Calculator estimates that this meal weighs in at 1,412 calories and 70 grams of fat (McDonalds Inc.). If I were to consume such a meal, based on the average 2,000 calorie diet I’d be taking in 70.6% of my daily calories, and a whopping 108% of my daily fat quota! The cheapness, tastiness, and speed of fast food resturants make them ideal for low income families and those who are unemployed. In moderation, fast food is extremely beneficial in today’s society. Balanced with healthier meals and exercise, fast food resturants provide a valuable and convenient service, but when fast food is the only food one consumes, big problems start occurring very quickly. Consider independent filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who in his documentary Super Size Me underwent an experiment in which for 30 days he would only eat McDonalds meals, 3 per day (Spurlock). A press release by McDonalds UK agrees with the claims of Spurlock’s documentary, explaining that “the reality here is that [Spurlock] ate a one dimensional diet of more than 5,000 calories a day – that’s twice the recommended amount for adult males, while he goes from being a highly active individual, to purposely stopping all physical activity. […]It’s hardly surprising then that this had an impact on his body” (McDonalds Inc.).

Exiled from McDonald Land: Regulating Fast Food Advertising

As noted in my intro paragraph, fast food sales are heavily dependent on brand recognition, and food advertising starts young. Adolescents are exposed to more advertising than ever before with the advent of new mediums such as the Internet and Internet-enabled phones. According to an article by epidemiologists Mary Story and Simone French on the effects of fast food on children, US adolescents spend a combined $140 billion each year on all products (par. 4). Parents who allow their children to watch television from a young age are letting marketers mold their children’s minds. Story and French’s article continues by claiming that “a child’s first request for a product occurs at about 24 months of age” and that “requests are often for the brand name product” (3). According to Super Size Me, “Before most children can speak they can recognize McDonald’s,” (Spurlock) and it’s a known fact that advertising agencies that target children will create ads specifically instructing kids to bug and pester their parents to buy brand name products. I remember a 90’s television ad for Nickelodeon Magazine in which young children found devious ways to ask their parents for “Nickelodeon Magazine, Please!” (Viacom Inc., 1997) and fast food companies are just as guilty of this tactic. The FCC caught wind of these advertising tricks in 1990 and passed the Children’s Television Act (CTA), which “limit[s] the amount of commercial matter which may be aired in certain children’s television programming to 10.5 minutes per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays” (Federal Communications Commission, 2010). This act created a minimum of a 3-hour block in which noncommercial children’s TV could be aired on every licensed TV station. Combined with the Public Broadcasting System, there exists child-friendly TV which is free of fast food ads. This didn’t satisfy everyone, however, and two California cities, San Francisco and Santa Clara, have recently taken their regulation to the extreme.

Where’s the Parenting? The Argument against Fast Food Ad Censorship

In November, 2010, the city of San Francisco passed an ordinance to ban toys from McDonalds Happy Meals in the name of fighting childhood obesity. Proponents of the ordinance claim that it will “spare the health of millions,” (CNN) but opponents say that it is the job of parents, not the government, to regulate advertising influences on kids. Children can’t legally enter contracts, meaning they can’t make money, and thus their purchasing power is limited to the funds that parents give them. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom vetoed the toy-banning ordinance, explaining that “Parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat, especially when it comes to spending their own money,” (CNN) but his veto was overturned. His argument stands, however, and if parents want to allow their kids to buy fatty foods, it should be their right to do so.

Television advertising is extremely effective on children, but the ads themselves should not be censored. Exposure to such ads should be censored by good parenting. If an adolescent has a strong foundation of beliefs that promote healthy eating, and is reinforced by their parents, then they will be less likely to give in to the pulls of advertising agencies. The problem can go both ways, however, and if children are told by their parents that they’re too fat, they’re more likely to develop eating disorders of the opposite kind such as anorexia nervosa. What kids need to learn is that fast food can be a beneficial and healthy part of their lives if used in moderation. Although children are spending more money than ever on food, their ability to obtain the money they spend rests with their parents. If a child’s parents talk to him/her about the values of healthy eating, and prevent them from eating at fast food restaurants too often, the child will likely adopt his/her parents’ values.

In conclusion, advertising in the fast food industry should not be regulated because doing so would be to treat the proverbial symptoms of the problem, not the disease itself. Although children are influenced greatly by ads, parents place the children in front of the TV. Parents and schools are responsible for buying or making meals for children, and the field of public education is already heavily regulated in terms of what type of food it can serve and what type of food ads can be displayed. Regulating ads to the extent of banning McDonalds from giving away Happy Meal toys is nothing short of unconstitutional, and while children may want to get a Happy Meal only for the toy, it is ultimately the responsibility of the parent to grant or deny the child his/her wish.


Works Cited

American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry. Obesity in Children and Teens. May 2008. 4 December 2010 <http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/obesity_in_children_and_teens>.

CDC. “US Obesity Trends.” 1 September 2010. CDC.gov. 6 December 2010 <http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html>.

Federal Communications Commission. “Children’s Educational Television.” 22 September 2010. FCC.gov. 6 December 2010 <http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/childtv.html>.

Martinez, Michael. “San Francisco overrides mayoral veto, bans Happy Meals with toys.” CNN 24 Nov. CNN. Web. 29 Nov. 2010. <http://edition.cnn.com/2010/US/11/23/california.happy.meals.ban/>.

Mary Story and Simone French
Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US
International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2004, 1:3doi:10.1186/1479-5868-1-3

Mayo Clinic Staff. Childhood Obesity: Complications. 9 October 2010. 4 December 2010 <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/childhood-obesity/DS00698/DSECTION=complications>.

McDonalds Inc. “McDonalds Nutritional Calculator.” 2010. McDonalds Canada. 5 December 2010 <http://www.mcdonalds.ca/NutritionCalculator/index_en.html>.

McDonalds. “McDonald’s UK position on ‘Super Size Me’.” August 2004. McDonalds Press Releases. 12 October 2007 <http://web.archive.org/web/20071012135323/http://mcdonalds.co.uk/pages/global/supersize.html>.

Serdula, et al. “Do Obese Children Become Obese Adults? A Review of the Literature.” Preventative Medicine 22.2 (1993): 167-177.

Super Size Me. Dir. Morgan Spurlock. Perf. Morgan Spurlock. 2004.

Thomas N. Robinson; Dina L. G. Borzekowski; Donna M. Matheson; Helena C. Kraemer
Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences
Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2007;161(8):792-797.

Viacom Inc. “Nickelodeon Magazine ad.” 1997. Youtube. 6 December 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5VFxeikXPg>.

William H. Dietz. Childhood Weight Affects Adult Morbidity and Mortality
J. Nutr. 1998 128: 411S-414S

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