Advertising: Snack Attack

Conversation around childhood obesity has been heating up everywhere from newscasts to boardrooms to PTA meetings, and for good reason: childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First lady Michelle Obama has made combatting it a pet project with her Let’s Move! campaign, the goal of which is to solve the problem within a generation, and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s prime-time crusade against processed food in schools, Food Revolution, is galvanizing the talk about the need for nutritional lunches. The climate is ripe for the healthy kid bandwagon to accelerate.

For companies that sell food to kids—food often high in fat, salt and sugar—the spotlight on children and how they eat is a potential public relations nightmare. But marketers are not taking the healthy food movement sitting down. Some are reformulating ingredients, others rethinking their marketing strategies, and still others creating programs they hope will encourage kids to exercise. The question for critics is, are they doing enough?

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nutrition advocacy group, issued a report in March grading 128 food and beverage manufacturers, chain restaurants and entertainment companies on how they market food to children. Ninety-five of them received an F—Mars received the highest grade, a B+—with food and beverage manufacturers doing “more” to address marketing to kids than chain restaurants and entertainment companies, says CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan.

Kids’ marketing expert Rachel Geller, chief strategic officer at The Geppetto Group, the WPP-owned agency that specializes in youth culture, sees the need for change as an opportunity. “It’s [something] almost any company can get involved with, either with new products or new programs,” she says.

Many already have. Between 2002 and 2006, for instance, food makers in the Grocery Manufacturers Association (the GMA has 300-plus members) tweaked 10,000 products to make them “healthier,” according to the association. (It’s looking to update the statistic based on efforts from 2007-09). Most recently, PepsiCo announced it would stop selling sugar-filled drinks in primary and secondary schools worldwide by 2012. And next month, the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation—a consortium of nearly 80 U.S. retailers, food manufacturers and nonprofits aimed at reducing obesity by 2015—will roll out plans for a nutrition and exercise elementary-school curriculum.

Perhaps the biggest reform effort has come from the U.S. Council of Better Business Bureaus, which, in 2007, created the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a consortium of food and beverage manufacturers that have agreed to self-regulate their ad programs. Sixteen industry heavyweights—including Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Burger King, Campbell Soup, McDonald’s and General Mills—have signed on. According to the CFBAI, the program initially required companies to devote 50 percent—recently changed to 100 percent—of their advertising directed to children under 12-years-old “to better-for-you products and/or messages that encourage good nutrition or healthy lifestyles.” (For example, participants must reduce the use of third-party licensed characters in ads and stop placing goods “in editorial/programming content.”)

Everyone came in at 100 percent, says BBB vp and CFBAI director Elaine Kolish, and four—Coca-Cola, Mars, Hershey and Cadbury—chose to stop advertising to kids under 12 altogether. “That’s a huge deal,” says Kolish. “I applaud them for it.”

Some critics are not impressed with industry efforts. “Parents have to do their part, but we’re making their part very difficult,” says Frederick Zimmerman, lead author of a food and marketing study, “Associations of Television Content Type and Obesity in Children”—published in February—and chair of health services at UCLA’s School of Public Health. The study found that the more TV commercials kids 12-and-under watched, the more they weighed, especially those under 7.