What if someone was using your property free in order to make a profit by sending clever messages to your young children enticing them to consume products that would damage their short and long term health? Welcome to Saturday and Sunday morning children’s network television.
Would you sit idly by and, like Ronald Reagan, dream about the magic of the marketplace. In a debate I had with Ronald Reagan back in 1975, I asked him whether he would do anything about the chronic selling of sugared cereals (40% of the flake was sugar) to 4 or 5 year olds. He replied that he saw nothing wrong “with a little sugar in the cereal.”
Twenty years ago, we collected many hundreds of these television ads beamed to small children to show that they are peddling junk food on program after program. Notwithstanding the ban on all television advertising beamed to little children, who cannot distinguish between programs and ads, in western European countries, the U.S. agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), did nothing. Under Carter, the FTC tried to set standards for children’s advertising and was blocked by hostile food industry-indentured members of Congress and a sneering brace of editorial writers.
Now, consumer forces are gearing up for another drive against such electronic child molestation and subversion of parents’ control over their small children. A survey of 340 television commercials on Saturday-morning programs by the Center for Science in the Public Interest produced a replay. Two hundred and twenty two of the commercials were pitching food of sorts. Over 90 percent of these ads “were for sugary breakfast cereals, fatty candy bars, sugary candies and snacks, greasy chips, salty canned pastas, and fast-food meals typically high in fat, cholesterol, and sugar.”
The Center went on to report that not everything is the same as the early Seventies: “National surveys show that over the past 20 years there has been a 54% increase in obesity in elementary school children and a 39% increase in adolescents. Some of that increase is certainly a result of watching 3-4 hours of TV a day and eating the foods advertised. Studies have also found correlations between children’s cholesterol levels and adult risks of heart disease.”
In the intervening two decades, nutritional science has advanced to show people the harmful connection between high fat, sugar and salt diets, and a variety of ailments from heart disease to diabetes.
The food companies and their chief executives know about these findings. Many of the executives have changed their own personal diets accordingly. Yet their companies are engaging in daily seduction of highly suggestive and vulnerable little children to eat the junk foods they know to be bad for their health.
Using cartoon authority figures such as Tony the Tiger, the Madison Avenue hucksters devise the most demonically manipulative advertisements which, by their own jargon, are designed to have “a high nag factor.” That is, the ads prod the kiddies to nag their parents to buy the stuff.
Aside from one Kellogg “good-breakfast” ad, not a single ad or public-service announcement in the Center’s survey urged children to eat vegetables, fruit, whole-grain bread, low-fat milk, poultry or fish.
Congressman Ron Wyden (Dem. Oregon) has asked several Bush government agencies for their evaluations of these ads and their effect on children. He wants an agreement by broadcasters and advertisers to air during Saturday morning more public service announcements and programs encouraging children to build their “diets around fruit, grains, vegetables, lean poultry and meat, and low-fat milk.”
The National Association of PTAs made the pragmatic point for taxpayers — it’s good-nutrition now or pay-later. Taxpayers and consumers pay billions of dollars per year on treating heart disease and other sicknesses which are linked to bad diets from childhood.
So if you care about your common property — the public airwaves — and America’s children, send to the Center for Science in the Public Interest for copies of their statements on what to do about this corporate cruelty beamed into your living room. (Write to CSPI, Suite 300, 1875 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20009.)