Marketing to children might have crossed a line.
Most of America’s favorite junk food wasn’t dreamed-up in a kitchen. It wasn’t based on grandma’s old recipe or carefully honed over thousands of family dinners.
In fact, most junk foods were created in a laboratory by scientists, marketers, and food engineers who know our weaknesses only too well.
Junk food companies know we like a chip that breaks at a, “Weibull modulus of about 4 and a characteristic strength of about 1.5 MPa” and they know the precise cocktail of additives and chemicals to make junk food addictive.
In the future, purveyors junk food responsible for America’s ever-skyrocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes may face a Tobacco industry-level reckoning.
When that day comes, the most damning bit of evidence will be the same as it was for big tobacco companies: The unmistakable lengths to which these companies went to market their unhealthy and chemically-addictive products to kids.
Ronald McDonald, Tony the Tiger, and Cap’n Crunch may someday face a jury and be ordered to pay restitution. Popeye the Sailor Man might be acquitted; he was telling the truth about spinach.
The tide has already begun to turn against marketing aimed at children.
“We do not carry products marketed to children,” scolds a sign at your local organic grocery store, right next to another sign: “To reduce plastic waste, we stopped selling bottled water in 2003”.
A paper published by Healthy Eating Research in March of 2016 entitled, “The Use of Brand Mascots and Media Characters: Opportunities or Responsible Food Marketing to Children,” is just one of thousands of similarly well-researched papers.
“Public health experts have consistently called on food, beverage and restaurant industry leaders to end all forms of marketing of high-calorie and nutrient-poor food and beverage products to children and adolescents to help reduce overweight and obesity rates in the United States,” the paper begins.
“This call aligns with the 2010 World Health Assembly Resolution and the World Health Organization’s recommendations for national governments and other stakeholders to restrict young people’s exposure to the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products that do not meet the government-recommended dietary targets for fat, sugar, salt, and total calories,” it continued.
“Younger children are especially vulnerable to the marketing of unhealthy food and beverage products that use brand mascots or media characters because they have difficulty distinguishing between advertising messages and factual information,” is the second-saddest sentence in the entire 7-page paper.
“Children develop emotional bonds with brand mascots and media characters as if they were their personal friends,” is the saddest. “These relationships are based on the attractiveness of the brand mascots and media characters, and they can influence children’s food choices and diet.”
The solution, of course, isn’t a nanny-state restriction on the consumers of junk food products. The ideal solution wouldn’t even be aimed at reducing the amount of junk food available to American consumers, who, as major junk food companies insist at every turn, still opt to eat fat-laden, sugar-filled, nutritionally-empty convenience foods in spite of healthier options available.
But just how freely these junk food consumers are really choosing is debatable given the engineered addictiveness of junk food. It is also debatable given the ages of the targets of sugary, brightly-hued breakfast cereals, fast food mascots, and toy-with-meal fast food promotions.
If a department store selling clothing wants to put its sale merchandise in the back to sell more items at full price, that’s just fine. If they want to study their shoppers’ buying habits to determine how best to tempt in would-be customers, excellent. By all means, lay out the store to maximize the spending potential of every person who passes beneath your shingle- that’s the American way.
What department stores cannot do, would be to spray a chemical cocktail on their merchandise to make it near-impossible to resist, causing people to buy far more than they can afford.
That wouldn’t be free market capitalism because consumers wouldn’t really be freely choosing. They would be under the influence of a chemical substance, unknowing.
We, as a society, don’t permit this for the same reasons there are so many restrictions on casinos and gambling establishments. It does not benefit society, or local communities, for a casino to beggar every potential gambler in a tri-state area. Doing so would place an undue burden on society, and other community members, who would be forced to care for the afflicted gamblers.
The cost of that outcome would be much higher than the benefit of casino-generated taxes.
For this reason, anyone who suspects they might have a gambling problem can have themselves put on a special no-admittance list at their friendly neighborhood casino, the employees of which will cheerfully bar that person in future.
Junk food companies don’t give anyone that option.
Most major food manufactures create their food-like products in a laboratory, laden with a very precise, carefully-calibrated concoction of chemicals, artificial flavors and additives as to be irresistible.
Some brains and bodies are perhaps more receptive to the cocktail than others, which is why many major food corporations and fast food companies make such a high percentage of their profits from “super-consumers”.
These super-consumers are drinking three two-liter bottles of soda every single day, eating fast food twice and three times a day, and slowly killing themselves with their personal drug of choice: Chemically-engineered, addictive junk food.
Super-consumers are the junk food advertisers greatest achievement. The sooner they can get such potentially loyal customers addicted to their product, the easier their job becomes.
For this reason, we see a heavy proliferation of junk food marketed to children.
Tobacco companies still exist; they still make a profit. Plenty of adults, in spite of the many, well-documented health risks associated with smoking, still choose to do it. That is their choice.
What tobacco companies are no longer able to legally do, is willfully and knowingly market their products to children in an attempt to corner market share. As a society, we have recognized such as detrimental to public health.
It’s time for a similar collective look at junk food companies and their marketing methods.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)