Why the Food Industry Won't Stop Marketing Junk Food to Kids

Last Updated Mar 9, 2010 8:18 PM EST

Four years ago, with the FTC breathing down their necks, major food companies insisted that they'd embrace self-regulation and stop marketing unhealthy food to kids. Guess what? It didn't work.

Many food companies cut back on traditional TV advertising, but they devised other, equally effective ways to market their products to kids. In a look-here-not-there maneuver, they shifted energies towards making the packaging and in-store presentation of sugary, fatty or salty products as alluring as possible to kids.

In a report last week, Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that between 2006 and 2008 the number of foods featuring "youth-oriented cross promotions" -- licensed characters like Dora the Explorer and Spiderman, movie and TV show tie-ins, and toys and games -- increased by a whopping 78 percent. And most of those foods, 82 percent, were what the researchers considered to be unhealthy.

And today the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a report rating food, restaurant and entertainment companies for their policies on marketing to kids, giving most companies dismal grades. Restaurant and entertainment companies in particular appear to view children's marketing as a non-issue, since, according to CSPI, 76 percent of restaurant chains and 78 percent of entertainment companies have done no self-regulation at all.

But really, who can blame the industry for either ignoring the FTC or turning to Spidey and Taylor Hicks for help? It's only natural to expect that when you ask an industry to self-regulate, they're going to do it in a way that benefits them. Marketing to kids is lucrative -- why would anyone give that up if they didn't have to? As any mom knows, all you need to do is slap Tony the Tiger or Hannah Montana on a package of chips and kids want it. It's a fight to get out the grocery store alive.

The FTC is not satisfied with food companies' lame efforts, but the agency apparently still believes in self-regulation. They and other government agencies are in the process of creating a set of nutrition standards for what exactly constitutes healthy food for children -- today food companies have wildly different definitions of "healthy" food. But these standards will be voluntary and it will be up to companies to decide if they're going to adopt them.

You get the sense that food companies are always going to be one step ahead.

Photo by Flickr user Fire Monkey Fish, CC 2.0