Ad Industry Assailed by Another Report on Kids' Health

26 February 2004

Monday's report by the American Psychological Association proposing legislative restrictions on advertising to children under the age of seven or eight [WAMN: 25-Feb-04], was the first of a double whammy for the US ad industry.

Tuesday saw the publication of a second study which -- although making no restrictive proposals -- airs similar issues of concern to those on both sides of the barricades.

Published by the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation -- a nonprofit, private organization founded by the American shipbuilding magnate who died in 1967 -- the document summarizes existing studies on obesity and the media.

It examines the effect of television, video games and movies that capture children's attention. Although the report refrained from advocacy, it did discuss possible policy changes, such as regulating or reducing food advertising aimed at children.

For some time, advertisers and agencies appear to have believed silence to be the best defense against such attacks, especially in the emotive arena of advertising to kids. But in recent months the ad industry has awoken to the need to refute (if it can) the charges levelled against it.

Although this latest document is reportedly temperate both in its language and conclusions, some marketers accuse its authors of failing to support their conclusions adequately.

Steven Rotter, chairman of New York's Rotter Group, an agency that specializes in marketing to children, asks why the accusing finger is pointed solely at advertisers: "We want kids to buy our products," he acknowledges. "But Mom and Dad, if your kid is eating too much and eating the wrong stuff, don't let them have it."

Some campaigners believe this to be an overly simplistic view. "What's really powerful are the interventions that have succeeded in reducing children's weight problems by reducing the time spent with media," says Vicky Rideout, the Foundation's vp and program director for the study.

"If you find that something is succeeding, you don't necessarily have to wait for 100 percent proof explaining why it's succeeding."

Rideout points out that in a marketing context, "media" is a term broadly defined to include not only direct broadcast and print advertising. It also includes things like subtle product placement in programming, artwork for product packaging and licensing deals that link products to popular broadcast icons.

Perhaps surprisingly, Marva Smalls, executive vp for public affairs at kids' channel Nickelodeon, agrees that waiting for all the evidence to accrue is not good enough when the issue is children's health. "While there is still much to be learned, we at Nickelodeon are not waiting to be proactive on this," she said.

Over the past six months, Nickelodeon has engaged in "reconnaissance" on the issue via discussions with trade associations, nutritionists, marketers, government officials and others.

One consequence of these talks is the recent launch of a campaign themed "Let's just play," to encourage more physical activity among children. The broadcaster also restricts commercials during preschool-age programming to the beginning and end of shows.

In the main, however, marketers still reject the hypothesis that advertising, marketing and promotions aimed at children constitute the "main mechanism by which media use contributes to childhood obesity" -- an effect the report posits as likely.

"There are a lot of questions about whether this advertising is a major force," said Daniel L Jaffe, evp for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers. "It would be very unfortunate, if we got off on some dead-end alley trying to manipulate advertising, when that may not be the driving force in this area."

His opposite number at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Dick O'Brien, agrees. "All of us are trying to figure out what's the best way to solve the epidemic," he said. "The Kaiser study goes at it in a fairly balanced way. Where they make a huge leap in judgment is where they say that advertising may be part of the problem."

Ostriches are said to bury their head in the sand to avoid being seen by predators.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff