February 23, 2007

Limiting Junk-Food Ads for Kids?

A massive and welcome debate is now fully upon us since major companies are taking more responsibility for their negative influence on kids, particularly in nutrition. Pressure is mounting from the Association of American Pediatricians for Congress to ban kids' junk-food ads from television. So Kraft has vowed to do just that. And it has company, as this brief from the Wall Street Journal states:
"Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, McDonald's, Unilever, Kellogg, Hershey, General Mills, Campbell Soup, Cadbury Schweppes and Coca-Cola have promised to stop advertising in elementary schools and product placements and feature only healthy food and statements in children's games. The food and beverage giants also swore to allocate a minimum of 50% of advertising to advocate healthy lifestyles and products for children. However, Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael Jacobson asserted that firms could still market junk food by using health messages."
The problem though is that this is essentially a cultural failure, and as such it is not likely to be solved via mere voluntary and/or regulatory advertising restraint. Let's assume that corporations gradually eschew kids' junk food, replacing many if not most sugary cereal and snack options for much more healthful but still tasty ones. And there is indication that this is indeed already happening as Disney has also vowed to stop licensing unhealthy foods with its cartoon characters, including even McDonald's Happy Meals.

At this ideal point in the future, all it will take is one lone-wolf new competitor to take advantage of the situation by pushing the envelope again on sugar and various heavily-processed flavor enhancers. That new rush of quick and easy flavors will once again prey on unsuspecting kids and parents much the way it did the first time. And all the other major players will want a piece of the action. Indeed, as Michael Pollan astutely points out in his NYT bestseller The Omnivore's Dilemma and this excellent NYT Magazine piece, without heavy processing, food companies cannot distinguish their products significantly from each other. Success for them is in the branding of a particular flavor that cannot be found elsewhere. So whole foods are not lucrative. Artificial ones are.

This is a paradox of the way the free market promotes food. It constantly reinforces new eating habits instead of the more basic tried-and-true healthful ones. And regulation can only go so far as the law cannot be precise enough to rule-out new inventions. It cannot, say, ban processing altogether. And if it limits sugar content, new stand-ins will surely appear. The same goes for television ads, since the concept "healthy food" is elastic.

So while corporate social responsibility on this is certainly helpful and commendable—especially if sincere—it is not the final or even essential solution to a much wider socio-economic and cultural problem. Ultimately, the only remedy is for parents to give junk foods so rarely to their children that they come to dislike them except in small amounts and on rare occasions. And this will take a widespread shift in American food culture. Or else, even though the pendulum on kids' junk food is in positive swing, it will inevitably fall right back.

It's essentially a question of virtue ethics. As Aristotle pointed out, we are the sum of our habits. Good habits must be learned and inculcated by the doing. Thus consistent parental guidance is absolutely crucial.