Food Industry Marketing to Kids 'Obscene', Says Senator

18 March 2005

Hand it to Tom Harkin, the influential Democrat senator for Iowa. He knows how to stage-manage a press conference.

Harkin, who also chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, stood in a Capitol Hill hearing room beside a long table stacked end to end with cartoon food promotional characters - among them Shrek, Spider-Man and Barbie garbed in a McDonald's uniform. Such child-targeted marketing, the senator said, is "obscene".

Brandishing a picture of loveable ogre Shrek alongside one of Joe Camel (an equally loveable but now defunct cartoon character used to promote the eponymous cigarette brand), Harkin declared: "We got rid of Joe Camel. We've got to get rid of Shrek."

The antisocial crimes of Joe Camel are well known. But Shrek?

For readers of lofty intellect or who live in Turkmenistan, Shrek is the lead character in the immensely successful DreamWorks animated movie franchise, who also earns his creators a daily dollar by fronting promotions and brand tie-ins targeting children, notably for a range of General Mills products including cookies, cereal and popcorn.

The Iowan senator displayed scant respect for CARU (the Children's Advertising Review Unit), run and funded by the US food industry to police ads and promotions to kids. "CARU has been around for thirty years and look what we have," Harkin said. "What have they done?"

Harkin also released the text of a letter he plans to send to the chief executives of thirty-eight food and fast-food corporations, whom he accuses of being "complicit" in the surge of obesity among children.

"Food companies are increasingly aggressive in marketing unhealthy food to our children through a wide variety of innovative strategies - cartoon tie-ins, 'advergaming' and cross-promotions - with a goal of encouraging young children to consumer unhealthy products," reads part of the senator's letter, which will also be mailed to movie studios, broadcast companies and trade associations.

Harkin revealed he is piloting legislation to confer greater authority on the Federal Trade Commission to police children's marketing, The bill will also empower the agriculture secretary to ban junk food from schools unless food marketers respond voluntarily and fast.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America repsonded with its standard partyline on child obesity issues. "Effective solutions to obesity must take a comprehensive approach, incorporating sound nutrition, increased physical activity, consumer and parent education, and community support," said GMA president/ceo Manly Molpus.

"Above all," he added, "the focus should be on giving parents the information they need to ensure their children eat a nutritionally-balanced diet and get the right amount of physical activity."

Data sourced from AdAge (USA); additional content by WARC staff