Pitching junk

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“This is fan food, not fast food.”
— Dairy Queen slogan

Fast-food giants have taken a two-pronged approach to mitigate the rise of dietary consciousness in recent decades.

One was to add more healthy options to the menu. The other strategy seems to be to ignore the warnings and criticism and market their junk with increased vigour. In the case of Dairy Queen, their new slogan consists of flat denial.

The mass marketing of junk food and its effect on public health have been highlighted for some time. Eric Schlosser’s 2001 book “Fast Food Nation” was  among the first to spell out the startling statistics of fast-food consumption in the U.S.

Last year, Michael Moss’s “Salt Sugar Fat” explained how fast-food companies conduct extensive research on how to target our taste buds and get us hooked.

Perhaps the most alarming facet of all this, however, is the trend of targeting children in junk food advertising.

As the National Post’s Tom Blackwell pointed out Wednesday, almost 20 top food manufacturers volunteered seven years ago to adopt advertising standards that would curb the promotion of unhealthy eating in children. Studies have shown such advertising plays a role in Canada’s child obesity epidemic.

But a review of that initiative has found little has changed since that time.

“Some advertisers have made significant strides, but overall they are now actually targeting more commercials at children and teenagers on youth TV networks than before,” Blackwell wrote, summarizing the study’s findings. “And they are making greater use of both the brands’ own ‘spokes-characters’ and beloved figures from children’s TV and movies, shown by other research to be powerful pitchmen.”

Those celebrity endorsements come from brand characters like Cap’n Crunch and Tony the Tiger, as well as external characters such as Spider-Man and Super Mario.

There were exceptions. Coca-Cola and McCain Foods had no commercials on kids’ channels over the span of the study, and the number of chocolate bar ads decreased.

“Overall, however, the number of spots judged by the researchers to be targeted at children under 12 remained just as high, while those jointly aimed at children and teenagers almost doubled in volume,” wrote Blackwell. “And average nutritional quality did not change.”

Legislating food advertising would be tricky, especially since many shows are watched by both children and adults.

But University of Ottawa professor Monique Potvin Kent, who led the study, urged that some sort of action be taken for the sake of children’s health.

“All parents are trying to do is feed their kids healthily,” she told the Post. “By having marketing regulations, you’re actually helping parents raise their kids and make the choices, as opposed to industry making the choices.”

Organizations: National Post, Coca-Cola, McCain Foods University of Ottawa professor Monique Potvin Kent

Geographic location: Canada

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