Boneless, skinless chicken breasts don’t have theme songs. Carrot sticks don’t come with catchy slogans. Quinoa doesn’t have a cartoon character mascot dancing its way through commercials. But Kit Kats do. Lay’s Potato Chips do. Frosted Flakes do. And you know what? Theme songs and slogans and mascots work.
Starting them young
In the decade since the Institute of Medicine declared that junk food marketing targets children at a stage in their development when they’re incapable of distinguishing fiction from fact, things have gone from bad to worse. Before kids learn their ABCs, they learn to hum along to Lucky Charms commercials. It’s the advertising that helps make those marshmallow bits “magically delicious.”
Here’s how it works: Eight-year-old you is plopped in front of Sponge Bob while Mom makes dinner. In between watching Mr. Krabs counting money and Patrick Star mindlessly devouring crabby patties, you’re consuming commercials in 3-minute chunks, all littered with glittering images of Happy Meals, Cheetos, and Coca-Cola. At this point, you have zero interest—if you had any to begin with—in the non-descript meal Mom’s cooking up with a side of steamed whatever. You want a hamburger. You want French fries. You want Oreos.
And you know what? It doesn’t matter if Mom holds her ground or not. As soon as you’re not with Mom—maybe you’re at a friend’s house or buying school lunch—you know exactly what you want. And I’ll bet it’s not steamed broccoli.
Bonus points for nostalgia
As soon as I mentioned “Kit Kats,” I bet you stopped reading and started thinking about the now infamous commercial. The “break me off a piece of that Kit Kat Bar” bit is catchy, right? It kind of makes you want to have a Kit Kat right now, doesn’t it? Talk about return on investment for a commercial you watched before you even knew what a commercial was.
Nostalgia is a powerful psychological force. Scientific research has shown that the emotion brings you back to a safe, happy place. All you need to feel good again, even when you’re having a whopper of a day, is a nostalgic trigger. Remember splitting Oreos with your buddy at lunchtime? How about sipping Yoo-hoos during a baseball game? It’s normal to want to recapture that feeling—it’s something we do naturally.
While nostalgia makes you happy, so does food. The witch’s brew of fat, sugar, salt, and other stuff that the food industry puts in its legion of products are too tempting for the majority of consumers to pass up, especially children. As Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, observed, the food industry has discovered a lethal combination of sugar, fat and salt that gives us a hedonic kick similar to that provided by heroin. During particularly difficult or stressful times, your body produces excess cortisol, a hormone, which, among other things, triggers cravings. Combining cravings with memories of happier, easier times associated with junk food, and you’ve got little chance of holding out.
What can we do
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. More than 50 countries around the world regulate food industry advertising to children. Sweden and Norway, as an example, don’t allow advertising directed at children younger than 12. Greece bans toy advertising before 10 p.m. In Denmark and Belgium have imposed major restrictions on child-directed advertising. While obesity is increasing in those countries, the rates overall are paltry in comparison to the United States.
While limiting advertising to kids who still haven’t learned to read or reach the kitchen countertop might help, it’s really just surface dressing. Indeed, limitations, or even an outright ban on junk food advertising is a weak overture to our nation’s weight epidemic. A ban of advertising would undoubtedly grab a few headlines, conveying the message that our government is doing something when all too often it does nothing, but the truth is that any proposed ban won’t consider the innumerable cultural, lifestyle, biological and environmental factors that contribute to our weight woes. And if we’ve learned anything from our history, banning doesn’t work, and, in fact, often produces the opposite effect.
Parent education seems to be the best bet here, and one that would hopefully have a carryover effect to schools, where kids still have too much access to non-nutritious foods. Some common sense suggestions might include not letting kids drink their calories, stop super-sizing, and choose grilled instead of fried foods. Modeling good eating behaviors especially at home, where eating habits form, is critical as well. Finding great tasting alternatives to junk food is a wide open opportunity as well, and perhaps as we make parents and schools more aware of the scope of the problem, this opportunity will turn into a booming business that will, in the final analysis, be good for all of us, and especially for our children.