The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began to heavily legislate cigarette marketing in the 1960s following a report from the Surgeon General's office on the dangers of smoking. Efforts were largely focused on reducing the ads that targeted children, which often ran during programs for children and teens like The Flintstones. In a story that has been well publicized, tobacco companies turned to more subtle marketing, creating and employing iconic characters. This marketing tactic survived well into the nineties, until a JAMA study revealed that children could identify Joe Camel with cigarettes as readily as they could identify Mickey Mouse with Disneyland.

Though this spelled the end of Joe Camel, the dance between regulatory agencies and the tobacco industry is ongoing. And understandably so: Approximately 70% of adult smokers began smoking before the age of 18—most were addicted by the age of 14. The tobacco industry needs new smokers, but public health concerns demand ever-increasing regulation. The end of this story is likely not quite in sight.

However, today as a society, we're facing a health crisis as dangerous as smoking addiction. The rising rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure is regarded as an epidemic. This reality has caused us to more closely re-examine our ideas about nutrition, spurring changes in school lunchrooms and lunch boxes across America. But there are still many hurdles to healthy eating when one considers the lifestyle choices many people are forced to make. If you're working two or three jobs to make sure the rent is paid, or pulling late nights at the office, or juggling school, a family, and a job, when you get home, your priority may not be a home-cooked meal. In these instances, take-out begins to look really appealing. Additionally—and somewhat ironically—it is cheaper to purchase prepared meals than cook them in many cases. But what does the marketing of fast-food options tell us—and more importantly, our children—about the foods they are consuming? And does it contribute to a culture of unhealthy appetites?

In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates food labeling, food composition and health claims. Advertising and marketing of these goods is regulated by the FTC. Together, these agencies mandate that marketing initiatives relating to food cannot be false, deceptive, or unfair. Furthermore, industry self-regulation is managed by the Better Business Bureau (BBB). In the wake of growing attention the issue of childhood obesity, the BBB also created the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is a pledge by food manufacturers that they will only feature food options that meet certain a nutrition criteria, and de-emphasize premium offers (e.g., toys) and support from promotional characters that may distract from the product at hand.

Taken together, it seems pretty straightforward, right? Theoretically, there are lots of checks in place to ensure the messaging is clear and straightfoward. A study published in PLOS ONE by Bernhardt and colleagues suggests otherwise. The researchers shared the results of a statistical analysis of the television marketing tactics for quick-service restaurants (QSR) to determine if these regulatory guidelines are effective. It's an important inquiry as research has demonstrated that food marketing can influence the choices we make about food. And children's tastes in particular can be formed by associations with animated characters leading to brand preference and the establishment of particular consumption habits.

Bernhardt and colleagues found that of the top 25 QSR of 2008, three advertised to children on television: McDonalds (McDonald's Happy Meals), Burger King (Burger King Kids Meals), and Subway (Fresh Fit for Kids). Over a one year period, McDonald's ran 62 ads, Burger King ran 30 ads, and Subway ran 3. The Subway data set was disregarded as being too small to provide a meaningful sample but the remaining 92 child-oriented ads from McDonald's and Burger King were matched to 92 adult-oriented ads for comparison. Bernhardt and colleges found that they differed in the following ways:

Over a year, the researchers found that these ads were distributed over 81,272 placements on national television. Furthermore, ads for children's meals were trafficked heavily on children's television stations: Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Disney XD, and Nicktoons. Together, the evidence leads the researchers to conclude that the self-regulatory pledges are being flouted. Stricter regulations are likely not too far away for this industry.

Healthy eating is a crusader's topic at the moment. While the NYC soda ban did not pass, it suggests that this sector is under scrutiny. Stricter regulations are likely not too far away for this industry.

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Amy M. Bernhardt, Cara Wilking, Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, Elaina Bergamini, Jill Marijnissen, & James D. Sargent (2013). How Television Fast Food Marketing Aimed at Children Compares with Adult Advertisements. PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072479


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