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And bid farewell to Ronald McDonald

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted April 22, 2002

All those Cassandras who warned that banning the advertising character Joe Camel from billboards and magazines (such advertising of perfectly legal products having been banished from TV decades before) would only be "the cartoon character's nose under the tent," are now officially authorized to say, "I told you so."

Businesses spend an estimated $13 billion a year marketing food and drinks to U.S. children and their parents, according to "Food Politics," a new book by Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. That's an increase of $5 billion in the last decade. And "Often, the stuff they're selling is not the perfect nourishment for growing minds and bodies," gasps Emilia Askari of the Detroit Free Press, in a lengthy "something-must-be-done" essay circulated last week to other members and subscribers of the Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Service.

Type 2 diabetes, previously considered an adult-onset disease, has increased drastically among youth nationwide, we are now advised. About 14 percent of U.S. children and youth are too heavy, "and chunky kids can face social discrimination that leads to poor self-esteem and depression, according to the surgeon general."

Oh, will the litany of horrors never end?

Don't get too comfortable buddy
Don't get too comfortable buddy

"Many experts -- and some legislators and parents -- are beginning to speak out against the marketing of low-nutrition food to children," Ms. Askari reports. "If the courts and government can outlaw the selling of cancer-causing cigarettes to kids, they ask, why not limit the hawking of obesity-inducing food as well? Is Joe Camel really so different from Ronald McDonald?"

As humorist Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.

"It won't be easy, because the broadcasters and the food companies have a lot of influence," warns Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit outfit (naturally) in Washington, D.C. "But it's important. Unhealthy eating habits, along with inactivity, kill as many people as tobacco does."

Heavens, whatever shall be done?

The anti-obesity activists' first target is to "get advertising and vending machines out of schools," we are informed. But it won't stop there.

They next hope to ban food advertising during programming "aimed at young children, such as cartoons." If the ads cannot be banned, then, Wootan suggests, media should be forced to carry ads for fruits, grains and other healthy alternatives along with ads for less-nutritious processed food.

Finally, "some even talk of bringing a class action against food companies, similar to the successful lawsuits in recent years by cancer patients against tobacco companies."

Oh good: the trial lawyers.

About half of all advertising aimed at kids is for food, Ms. Wootan announces, with a "that-proves-it" tone. Yet to what other potential advertisers would she prefer the television networks attempt to sell time on Saturday morning -- purveyors of chainsaws, firearms, lingerie and sexual aids?

Steve Grover of the National Restaurant Association calmly responds that many schools have stopped requiring physical education and nutrition training. "We don't teach people to make good food choices. Then when they don't, we blame the food."

Even author Nestle of NYU acknowledges that societal shifts like the reduction in opportunities for physical play contribute to childhood weight problems. Yet such "activists" respond not primarily by recommending more parental oversight and participation in healthy exercise with their children, but rather by calling on government to censor television advertising, on the assumption that absentee parents will continue to use this service as cheap, long-term day care.

Meantime, writers like Ms. Askari seem curiously unable to locate any of the many economic "experts" who might explain the very palpable benefits of advertising -- above and beyond the fact there's that little Constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech to be dealt with.

The number of new products which have revolutionized American life in the past century are almost beyond count. And make no mistake, many of those products had to break through considerable prejudice that even allowing their mention in public was somehow "in bad taste."

Many of these products could never have repaid the investment necessary to make them widely available at low cost if their advertising had continued to be effectively banned. Meantime, the hundreds of millions of dollars outfits like McDonald's have invested in their brand names give them a vested interest in maintaining high and consistent quality.

Yes, much of what gets advertised is crap. But when the public refuses to buy any particular line of crap, advertising dollars tend to dry up in a hurry. (Ask the folks who spent millions developing the "smokeless cigarette," or "New Coke.")

At bottom, these do-gooders hate the fact that American consumers are allowed to buy what they like, instead of what the experts contend is "good for them." Instead of listing the growth of advertising dollars as though it's prima facie evidence of evil intent, the activists might want to go back and review the general level of nutrition and quality of consumer goods enjoyed by societies that have banned "wasteful" advertising by "self-serving marketers" ... like the Soviet Union.

Ms. Askari refers to the highly-advertised foods in question as "low-nutrition." In fact, the reason so many Americans are obese is not because they're being peddled worthless, adulterated, and non-nutritious foods, but rather that they're eating "too much of a good thing." Calories are, after all, nothing but a measurement of a food's energy content.

What we have here is a clear-cut example of a bunch of firemen racing about looking for something else to hose down, because they've pretty much run out of real fires. So they turn to blaming another industry that's enjoying huge profits both because their natural bent is anti-capitalist and anti-free-market, and because they see there another set of pockets deep enough to be worth going after.

"Bad eating habits cost lives"? Yes, statistically ... and eventually.

But so do motorcycling and football and driving your car without a helmet. Will they next ...

Whoops. Forget I said that.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the daily Las Vegas Review-Journal and the author of "Send in the Waco Killers" and "The Ballad of Carl Drega." For information on his books or his monthly newsletter, "Privacy Alert," dial 775-348-8591, e-mail privacyalert@thespiritof76.com, or write 561 Keystone Ave., Suite 684, Reno, NV 89503.

Other related articles: (open in a new window)

  • The next moral crusade by Steven Martinovich (February 25, 2002)
    Are America's lawyers preparing to sue the fast food and snack food industries to snatch billions of dollars? Steve Martinovich answers that question and what drives people who think it's a good idea
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