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The reality of supersized marketing

Fed up? Well, you ought to be. This is not a case of "woulda, shoulda, coulda." It's gotta, Gotta, GOTTA. At issue is your kid, your dollars, your food choices and the people who want to control all three.

Marketing to children is associated with a number of serious concerns. Among them are family stress, youth violence, precocious sexuality and a sizeable contribution to children's diminished capacity to play. But the 800-pound gorilla of them all is the now well-documented epidemic of childhood obesity.

The news on this topic is relentlessly disturbing. In fact, there is so much being written and broadcast that some parents exhibit MEGO Syndrome ("My Eyes Glaze Over") when the subject comes up. But the frightening connection between obesity and marketing should snap any parent out of apathy and into action: If we do nothing about how fast our children are gaining weight, we may be the first generation of parents to produce children with a life span shorter than our own.

Take, for example, the news on Type II diabetes. It used to be called "adult onset diabetes" -- until someone began counting how many children between the ages of 9-18 were being diagnosed. It is projected that one out of every three children born in the years 2000 and on will become diabetic. According to a 2004 study at Yale, children given that diagnosis before age 15 can expect to reduce their lifespan by 17 to 27 years.

One of the biggest villains is soda pop. There are 30 million soda vending machines in the United States -- that breaks down to one for every 97 people. While some school districts are willing to turn down the soft drink companies' financial support for programs that are in fiscal need (see related stories, page 20), others are not. This should be a no-brainer: Studies show that children who aren't amped up on sugar drinks behave better and retain more of what they are learning.

Another hazard is portion control. Europeans often comment on the fact that in terms of serving size of both food and beverages, our "small" is their "large." Yet the minute a family member turns on the TV, the terms "whopper," "super" and "MEGA!" come roaring out at those least prepared to deal with them.

According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC):

  • Children see 40,000 advertisements per year on TV alone. And this number does not include "product placement," where a viewer can see a recognized brand being held or consumed by a character in the show. (Does your family watch "American Idol?" What kind of soda is everybody drinking? That's product placement -- in prime time.) That means our kids are seeing hundreds of additional "hidden commercials" per week.
  • Children see advertisements on the Internet, at the movies, on school buses, in classrooms (sometimes on each other's clothing) and in the cafeteria. Radio, TV and magazines target kids too. Combined with the previous total, children can see about 3,000 ads per day.
  • Almost every major media program has a line of licensed merchandise used to sell fast foods, breakfast cereals, snacks and candy. Note what's missing: anything HEALTHY.
  • Many toys, like Coca-Cola Barbie and McDonald's Play-Doh, are actually ads for junk food.
  • In their effort to establish cradle-to-grave brand loyalty, marketers even target babies as young as 10 months old through licensed toys and show characters. Think (and shudder) Teletubbies and BooBahs, for starters.

A significant problem is that very young children can't distinguish between commercials and the content of the programs. Somewhere in the home of parents with older children is a den of Care Bears just waiting to get to a yard sale, along with My Little Ponies, Linus and Lucy, and the Transformers that crippled any parent unfortunate enough to step on one when getting up (in inadequate lighting) to check on a restless child.

They were all "must haves" because of their TV shows...remember?

And it's getting even worse for older kids, who are being encouraged to buy products especially if they think their parents won't approve. The "nag factor" is an actual part of many marketing plans. A recent cartoon in the New Yorker showed two boys following their mom through a store; one of the boys clutching the item in question says to the other, "Don't worry. She'll give in as long as we stay on message."

What can parents do right now?

  • Contact AME (Action for Media Education) in Seattle and arrange for the organization's new Speaker's Bureau to do a presentation for your organization, school or preschool. The newest information on marketing to children is material you need to know (especially in light of PBS' new venture, "Sprouts," which permits commercials.) Visit for more information.
  • Plan on attending the ParentMap-sponsored Pathways Lecture, "Impacting the Supersized Generation: A Panel Discussion about Health, Nutrition and Media Influence on Families" with Don Shifrin, M.D. and Jan Faull, M.Ed. The event is May 12 from 7-9 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Bellevue.
  • Run, do not walk, to your bookstore for Susan Linn's book Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. It's as smart, funny and informative as its author, who is co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
  • Rent and pre-screen Morgan Spurlock's award-winning documentary "Super Size Me." It's rated PG-13 for the occasional expletive and a one-second, "black-boxed-out" shot of Mr. Spurlock's medical exam prior to his eating nothing but McDonald's food for 30 days. (He survived, and so will you.) It is (pardon the pun) FULL of important information.
  • Download "Food For Thought" from the ACME (Action Coalition for Media Education) -- the Web site is It provides a list of print-based resources, and will soon offer lesson plans for teachers interested in looking at marketing with the people at the center of the target: our kids.
  • Finally, remind your kids that "fast" food is essentially over-processed food being tossed to the customer. In perhaps the best line from "Super Size Me," we are reminded to pass along this advice to our kids: "Never eat anything served out a window -- unless you're a seagull."

Lynn Ziegler is finishing her first book, SPONGEHEADZ: U & MEdia. Parents (and especially kids!) are welcome to contact her at lynnztv@

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