November 9, 2011
Child Obesity on the Rise:
Are SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer to Blame?
To a child, walking down the aisles of a grocery store and seeing all of the bright cereal boxes, colorful fruit snacks, and delicious popular drinks labeled with their favorite cartoon or television show character is like a dream come true. The excitement of opening a box of cereal, pulling out a small but entertaining prize or action figure, and seeing a bright smile on a young child’s face makes spending the money worth it. However, does the advertising of these unhealthy foods with cartoon logos that appeal to children promote poor eating habits and contribute to the obesity among many young children?
When researching the impact advertising has on the obesity of children, there were several points that were prevalent. Studies revealed that cartoon characters used in television advertising are contributing to obesity among children. In spite of these results, some groups place the blame on parents and feel it is their responsibility to say no to their children and not purchase foods that are unhealthy. In addition, children are attracted to the flashy-colored packaging especially when they are labeled with their favorite cartoon characters. This packaging causes children to want to buy and consume these unhealthy snacks. Another point that was examined is that children do not understand the marketing tactics advertising companies use to get them to purchase junk food. Finally, governmental agencies acknowledge the negative impact that unhealthy food advertisements have on children and are in the process of establishing guidelines for food makers that limit the way they market items based on their nutritional content. However, food manufacturers are of the opinion that the governmental guidelines are too restrictive and feel they can police themselves when it comes to advertising their products.
Childhood obesity is on the rise. According to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the percentage of overweight and obese children has more than tripled in the last thirty years. In fact,” the obesity rate in children ages six to 11 increased from four to 19 percent” (Hedges par 5). The Kaiser study focused on the amount and content of food advertising aimed at children. The study found that more than seventy percent of advertisements on television are for food products that are non-nutritious such as sugary foods, candies, cereals, chips, crackers, or soft drinks. Research has shown there are very few advertisements that encourage young children to eat healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. During this study, 8,854 commercials were viewed, however, none of which were for fruits or vegetables (Hedges par 6). This constant exposure through television advertisements lures young children into wanting unwholesome products labeled with their favorite cartoon characters.
Research shows there is overwhelming evidence that advertising unhealthy food to children using popular cartoon characters contributes to childhood obesity. There are a few naysayers that believe advertising does not influence what children eat. Nonetheless, studies clearly indicate that obesity is on the rise in young children and that they are bombarded with commercials that promote unhealthy food. By no means is advertising the sole reason that children are obese. Children have a more sedentary lifestyle due to an increase in technology such as video games and computers. However, young children are eating more low nutritional foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and sodium because they are exposed to an overwhelming number of commercials that promote these unhealthy foods. Naturally, children are going to choose foods that are associated with their favorite cartoon character. Unfortunately, unhealthy foods are usually promoted in this manner.
Advertisers also contribute to childhood obesity by placing cartoon characters on packaging of unhealthy snack foods. Children are naturally attracted to the flashy, bright, colorful packaging and labeling on food products (Pitt par 2). As a result, one trip down the snack aisle is all it takes for children to ask for foods with their favorite cartoon character or superhero displayed on the box. This is not by accident as marketers make their products look enticing and irresistible. In studies, researchers find that nearly eighty-five percent of children choose snacks with cartoon character packaging over an identical snack without the fun packaging. According to the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, “When preschoolers were asked if they would rather eat broccoli or a Hershey’s chocolate bar, 78% of the children chose the chocolate bar and only 22% chose broccoli. When an Elmo sticker was placed on the broccoli, however, 50% of the children chose broccoli” (29). Children actually believe food tastes better when it contains their favorite cartoon logo. This demonstrates the powerful influence cartoon characters such as Elmo, SpongeBob, and Dora the Explorer have on the foods that children eat.
Research confirms that it is natural for a child to be persuaded by fun, brightly colored packages that display their favorite cartoon character. The packaging that advertisers use influences how children feel about that product. Thus, when eye-catching packaging is used, children are persuaded to eat unhealthy food. One contradictory viewpoint places the blame for childhood obesity directly on the parents and not on the packaging of food. No matter how appealing and tempting the packaging is on unhealthy foods, it is the parent’s responsibility to tell their children no when they are walking down the grocery aisle wanting to buy these sugary, unwholesome foods. Children develop their opinions about food through advertising and seem to like foods that are visually appealing.
Another point the research showed was that children are unable to comprehend the marketing tactics that companies use to advertise junk food. According to Bridget Kelly’s et al. article in the American Journal of Public Health, “Evidence from psychological research indicates that children, particularly those younger than eight years, are not fully aware of the persuasive intent of food marketing and tend to accept advertising as truthful, accurate, and unbiased” (par 3). Children are more susceptible to the effects of advertising simply because they are not able to understand the intent of advertisements. They believe whatever appears on the television screen, in a magazine, or on the internet is true. Because young children are not capable enough to make healthy choices on their own, they base their food selection on what appeals to them and what foods look tasty.
Governmental agencies acknowledge the negative impact that unhealthy food advertisements have on children and are establishing guidelines for food makers that limit the way they market items based on their nutritional content. As Janet Adamy points out in her article, “Tough New Rules Proposed on Food Advertising for Kids,” the Obama administration is making an effort to get food makers to minimize the amount of advertising of unhealthy foods to children. The government is proposing standards that would essentially require that the food being marketed to children and teens provide a “meaningful contribution to a healthful diet.” For example, marketers would not be allowed to advertise products to children that “exceed limited amounts of added sugars, saturated fat, sodium, or trans-fat” (Layton par 17).
Currently there are 17 major food and beverage companies that have begun to police themselves in their food advertising to children. However, since each company sets their own criteria for nutritional content, there is no consistency as to what is being advertised. The new guidelines proposed by the Obama administration hope to bring uniformity by giving specific requirements to the contents of foods that are allowed to be advertised. Even though these new governmental guidelines are supposed to be voluntary, they are met with opposition. Manufacturers feel pressure to comply because the guidelines come from the very agencies that regulate them. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, who represents food makers and other advertisers, feels the new guidelines are too restrictive. Popular products such as Frosted Flakes and Count Chocula cereals could no longer be advertised to children because they exceed proposed limits of sugar that food can contain (Layton par 18).
Food makers feel progress has been made through self-regulation. The Grocery Manufacturers Association states that “in recent years food and beverage manufacturers have changed the recipes of more than 20,000 products to reduce calories, sodium, sugar, and fat” (Adamy B1). Food makers are making products more nutritious and changing their marketing plans. Unfortunately for them, the government does not feel the changes are helping to reduce obesity in young children fast enough.
It is widely agreed that obesity in young children is on the rise. The number of food advertisements children view, the use of cartoon characters to promote unhealthy food, and the flashy colorful packaging are all in question as to the impact they have on the food children choose to eat. Food and beverage companies acknowledge their role in advertising to young children and feel they have made great strides in making their food more nutritious. However, the government wants more to be done to reduce childhood obesity and has established guidelines for food makers to follow.
Adamy, Janet. “Tough New Rules Proposed on Food Advertising for Kids.” Wall Street Journal (Apr. 2011): B1. SIRS Researcher. Web. 26 Oct. 2011.
Hedges, Stephen J. “Study Shows Junk Food Advertisements Target Kids.” Chicago Tribune 28 Mar. 2007: n. pag. Sirs Researcher. Web. 23 Oct. 2011.
Kelly, Bridget, et al. “Television Food Advertising to Children: A Global Perspective.” American Journal of Public Health 100.9 (2010): 1730+. SIRS Researcher. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.
Layton, Lyndsey. “Food, Ad Industries Resist Federal Guidelines for Marketing to Children.” Bangor Daily News. N.p., 25 May 2011. Web. 26 Oct. 2011.
Pitt, Roosevelt. “Is Cartoon Character Advertising Making American Kids Fat?” Natural News. N.p., 3 Oct. 2008. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.
United States. White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. “Food Marketing.” Solving the
Problem of Childhood Obesity within a Generation. By Melody Barnes and Task Force on Childhood Obesity. N.p.: n.p., 2010. 28-32. Let’s Move. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.