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MA Push Against Junk Food Ads

Massachusetts has a seat at the head of the table in leading a national cultural shift in marketing junk food, fast food, and sugar cereals to children.

Yesterday, five food and beverage companies responded to Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey's request that they adopt voluntary limits on ads to kids. Meanwhile a lawsuit filed by two Bay State families against Kellogg's for its marketing has led to sweeping reforms.

More changes are expected soon...all because a local family, a local advocacy group, and legislators are out to change the way companies pitch junk food to children. Here's WBUR's Monica Brady-Myerov with more on the story.

TEXT OF STORY

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The Carlson household in Wakefield runs a healthy kitchen.

SHERRI CARLSON: You hungry? Do you want an apple?

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Sherri Carlson gives her 5 year old daughter, Paige, an organic apple for a snack. She only buys organic food for her husband and three children. Sherri is also one of the plaintiffs whose lawsuit resulted in Kelloggs agreeing to adopt nutrition standards for the foods it markets to children. But none of that stops her daughter from demanding junk food when they are shopping.

SHERRI CARLSON: She saw a product she had never had, it was either dora or dragon tails fruit roll up thing. She saw it and I was like no I'm not getting that because I dislike buying the junk and she had a complete meltdown. It was interesting because she had never had the product but she saw the character and wanted it.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The tantrum made her think. What was influencing her daughter's choices? It didn't take long to figure it out.

SFX of SpongeBob TV show

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Sponge Bob is one of Paige's favorite shows. Sherri says her three children watch a lot of TV and thus they see a lot of commercials.

SHERRI CARLSON: Here's another candy one, one after the other. What is that one Paige? fruit gummys frust gushers they are a is there anything nutritional about it? sugar sugar artificial color, sugar sugar, artificial colors

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Children see about 31 ads on TV an hour and until the age of 8 they don't know ads are trying to sell them something. Sherri decided the ads had become so frequent and the food they were pitching was so unhealthy, she wanted to do something to stop it. So She joined the lawsuit.

SHERRI CARLSON: I'm doing my part but corporations aren't doing their part. They are being irresponsible they are marketing very unhealthy products. Well known fact the stuff is bad for their health yet they are given free reign to market away.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: One of the advocacy groups behind the lawsuit is the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. It's a small Boston based group that's only 7 years old but has taken on big corporations, such as McDonalds and now Kelloggs.

SUSAN LINN: All social movements start small.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Susan Linn is a psychiatrist and the co-founder.

SUSAN LINN: I see the commercialization of children lives which is a factor in so many of the problems facing children today not just childhood obesity, but eating disorders, precocious sexuality, youth violence, that I think it really is one of the most important issues that we have to come to grips with as a society.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The Campaign teamed up with the Center for Science in the Public Interest and threatened the file a lawsuit against Kelloggs. It chose Massachusetts because the state has some of the strongest consumer protection laws in the country. After a year of negotiations, Kelloggs agreed last month to voluntarily stop marketing foods to kids under 12 that don't meet certain nutrition guidelines for sugar, fat, sodium and calories. It also agreed to stop using characters on products, such putting Shrek on a box of Eggos.

Then Massachusetts Congressman Ed Markey took the effort one step further. He wrote to the top five food and beverage makers and asked them whether they would consider similar self-imposed regulations. Markey received their responses yesterday.

ED MARKEY: 132 it basically is something that I find unsatisfactory because their commitments are vague and they are undefined and they still leave an open question as to whether or not this children's marketplace will be protected against the marketing of unhealthy food to kids.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: McDonalds, Pepsi and General Mills said they will unveil new initiatives next week at a Federal Trade Commission meeting. They are motivated to make changes themselves, because Markey and other members of congress say they might regulate them if they don't. Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood says she wishes the government would step-in.

SUSAN LINN: One of the things about self regulation is that a company can make a policy but change it at any time there's nobody holding them accountable for that. And if these policies they have aren't profitable you can bet your life they are going to be changing them.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: The Massachusetts legislature is considering two new child consumer protection laws. One would require schools to sell only nutritious food and drinks. Another would ban all marketing to kids in schools. Representative Peter Koutoujian, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Health, says government has make laws to protect children from ads.

PETER KOUTOUJIAN: We have our children in our schools 6-8 hours a day while they are in there they are a captive audience. Any of the commercialism the marketing to them is a direct assault on them.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Koutoujian says his bills have a lot of support, but Linn says the power of the food industry is evident in the number of lobbyists it has on Beacon Hill.

SUSAN LINN: One of the problems with state bills these food and bev companies do have lobbyists who do spend a lot of time and money doing everything they can to sabotage states that are trying to put in some protections against marketing to children.**

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: Sherri Carlson, that mother of three in Wakefield and plaintiff in the Kelloggs case, would be relieved to see marketing curbed in schools because she's seen a lot of it in her kids elementary school.

SHERRI CARLSON: Once you realize it you can't believe it it's everywhere you turn. Our food service had a free giveaway for a bike. Unfortunately it was the Coco-cola logo no the bike and no one notices.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV: But now these Massachusetts families, child advocates and legislators together are turning the table on junk food makers and demanding more responsible marketing to children.

For WBUR I'm Monica Brady-Myerov.

This program aired on July 12, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

Monica Brady-Myerov Twitter Reporter
Monica Brady-Myerov was formerly a report in WBUR's newsroom.

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