Free SpongeBob!

spongebob and junkfood
This column was written by John Hood.
Don't expect to see this stirring slogan festooning t-shirts and banners anytime soon. But do expect to hear a lot about young Master SquarePants, and how he and fellow villains Scooby-Doo, Shrek, Dora the Explorer, and Tony the Tiger are consigning America's youngsters to disease, disability, and death.

On Tuesday, the Institute of Medicine issued a long-awaited report — requested by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), not coincidentally — that accused food companies of using popular cartoon characters and other dirty tricks to manipulate children into buying junk food and becoming obese. The institute demanded that advertisers either change their practices within the next two years or be subjected to a new round of federal regulation of what children can see and hear about food.

The report generated a flurry of news stories across the country, virtually of them uncritically passing along the institute's purported findings and assumptions. "Panel Faults Food Packaging for Kid Obesity," reported the Wall Street Journal. "Report Links TV Ads and Childhood Obesity," stated the New York Times. "Food marketing is endangering the health of our children, pure and simple," Senator Harkin told USA Today.

In reality, the report didn't establish this fact at all. Summarizing dozens of studies going back decades, the institute's report comes to such shocking conclusions as this: Children recall the brand names of heavily advertised foods and tend to ask for them instead of, say, generic beets and turnip greens. According to the Times report, Ellen Wartella, a member of the institute panel and provost of the University of California at Riverside, said the report had "proven that food advertising, primarily on television, influences the diet, preferences, and requests of children under 12."

"We have not had that kind of information before," she said.

Really? What did she and her colleagues think food manufacturers and restaurants have been doing over the past 50 years of advertising to children — squandering gazillions of dollars in a pointless exercise? Of course food advertising works. That's why rational advertisers keep doing it. And anyone who has children knows that ads and packages help to shape children's requests for the latest snack foods or menu items. It is a big leap from that fact to proof of a causal relationship between, say, Sponge Bob exhorting kids on TV to eat Pop Tarts and kids getting fat. Don't take my word for it. Here's a line from the institute's report that didn't get quite as much attention from the national media: "current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to [obesity] among children and youth."

Careful examination of the real trends in childhood behavior and health help to explain this missing link. For one thing, young children rarely buy their own food. Even older kids, who might exercise some choice in the lunchroom or out with friends, still have most of their dietary decisions made by parents or other adults. The latter may take particular foods or brands kids like into account — which is neither nefarious nor harmful in itself — but they also take many other factors into account, including nutrition, balance, portion, and cost. You don't have to be a food-industry shill to recognize the truth in the insistence that "junk" food is okay in moderation. That some kids ask for Shrek-brand cereal becomes a health problem only if they are allowed to stuff themselves with it.