Viacom, Nickelodeon and food advertising to kids

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July 1, 2013 by Tamara Piety

A while back there was this piece in the New York Times indicating that Nickelodeon would not be adopting a policy restricting the advertising of junk food to kids on its network like its rival, Walt Disney, had. the company’s spokesperson asserted that this was because Viacom (Nickelodeon’s parent) thought that nutritional standards ought to be left to “the experts” not to Hollywood. But as the article noted:

Money, of course, is a significant factor. Food advertising on Nickelodeon has fallen 45 percent since 2008, according to the company, partly because of its own efforts to cut back on ads for certain sugary drinks and fatty foods, and partly because of self-regulation by food companies.

But food remains Nickelodeon’s third biggest advertising category (behind movies and toys), accounting for roughly 18 percent of annual sales.

How significant a factor money is can be assessed with reference to the observation that “Advertisers spend roughly $950 million annually on television tailored to children under 12, according to industry estimates.”  And the percentage of ads toward this demographic for food was up 16% compared to 6% for ad spending generally.

The article takes Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) to task for her or the Center’s sometimes “excessive” rhetoric. But is is hard to see how it is excessive to say that increases in advertising are like “throwing gasoline on the fire” when in another article in that same issue of the Times was this one announcing that the AMA recognized obesity as a disease which affects “one in three Americans.” (Put aside for a moment that its impetus for this designation might be that there are drug companies which have obesity drugs they would like to sell….) Many of those are children so Wootan’s choice of words doesn’t seem excessive to me. There does appear to be a “fire” and children’s TV doesn’t do enough to combat it.

If you agree you can get more information about it on Marion Nestle’s Food Politics blog here. And here is a copy of the letter sent to Nickelodeon asking for it to do better in this regard.

Moreover, we shouldn’t take Viacom too seriously when it suggests this is a regulatory issues since when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), along with the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed suggested, voluntary self-regulatory guidelines for marketing food to children, the industry went ballistic opposing even these relatively mild guidelines that many of the experts, like Marion Nestle, thought didn’t go far enough. Any regulation is apparently a bridge too far for the purveyors of junk food or their advertisers.

In the white paper submitted by Viacom to oppose these guidelines Kathleen Sullivan had this to say: “The Supreme Court has long made clear that the government should not be in the business of approving or disapproving truthful commercial speech based on its content in order to protect consumers from making choices that the government views as bad for them. The Court has likewise made clear that this analysis does not change where the government aims at protecting children.” You can read the entire submission by Viacom here.

Sadly, this is largely true. While the Supreme Court has not explicitly ruled as such, it certainly has issued opinions which strongly suggest that it would so find. This doesn’t make sense when you think about it very carefully. Children don’t have the intellectual capacity of adults. No one imagines they do. And young children have a hard time sorting out fact from fiction. They think Ronald McDonald is a real person and a trusted figure. Yet apparently limitations of the advertising of junk food to children is off-limits because we can’t protect children from bad choices – it is caveat emptor from cradle to grave.

Interested readers can check out the proposed guidelines – now killed by the business lobby (see all these submissions from the BBB) – and see if you think they constitute outrageous overreaching.

What do readers think? Should you be able to pitch candies to babies?

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