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Childhood Obesity: The Food Industry's Newest Marketing Ploy

You probably haven't heard the news that September has officially been designated as Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, but food companies sure have. And they're going to be celebrating all month long.

McDonald's (MCD) is already an eager supporter of the official web site for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month and the American Beverage Association has blogged about how exciting this Congressional designation is -- "What a difference a month can make!".

We've now gotten to the point where childhood obesity is no longer primarily a national health issue or a public policy conundrum -- it's a juicy marketing opportunity. We saw the first seeds of this trend when Michelle Obama launched her Let's Move campaign and food companies applauded until their hands turned red. In one speech in which MO attempted to admonish an audience of food company executives for selling too much junk food, the First Lady elicited not the sobering soul searching she'd probably hoped for, but a standing ovation.

Food companies are working very hard to avoid blame for making Americans fat in the first place by inserting themselves into efforts to solve the problem. They've announced plans to collectively cut 1.5 trillion calories from their products and they assiduously promote their efforts to make healthier products.

Taking concrete steps is all well and good -- both smart marketing and an outgrowth of companies trying to do the right thing. But when companies that sell soda, french fries and pepperoni Hot Pockets start leaping all over the emerging childhood obesity cause, it threatens to both diminish the urgency of the problem and make companies look cynical and self-promotional.

That's pretty much how the American Beverage Association, the lobbying and trade group for Coke, Pepsi (PEP), Dr Pepper Snapple and other beverage makers, comes off when it used the occasion of Childhood Obesity Awareness Month not to announce some new, helpful initiative, such as curtailing the marketing of sugary drinks to kids or the building of new fitness centers in areas that desperately need them, but to tout stuff they've already touted at every possible turn. In its blog, the ABA went quickly from childhood obesity to chest thumping:

Under the national School Beverage Guidelines, our member companies have removed full-calorie soft drinks and replaced them with lower-calorie, nutritious and smaller-portion beverage options. As a result, beverage calories shipped to schools have been reduced by a dramatic 88 percent since 2004. But, our member companies aren't just stopping there â€" they've also come together with a Clear on Calories labeling initiative, committing to clearly display the calories in all of their beverages on the front of the can or bottle as well as on company-controlled vending machines and fountain equipment.
As for McDonald's support of the Childhood Obesity Awareness Month initiative, which is done through their Stage M kids website, its involvement looks out of place, at best. It's the lone corporation among public health and nonprofit groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the National League of Cities and the YMCA. Dan Henkel, spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine, which is spearheading the effort, says that the so-called Healthier Kids, Brighter Futures initiative is a "very informal alliance" and that none of the supporters have contributed money.

Which begs the question of why McDonald's needs to be there at all. It certainly doesn't help give the effort authenticity and it could hurt the company's credibility. Does anyone really believe McDonald's can help kids lose weight?

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