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Advertising. Obesity. Prince Harry. Nazis. And My Kashi Is Getting Soggy.

Posted by: David Kiley on January 28, 2005

As reported in The Wall Street Journal: “Ken Powell, an executive vice president at General Mills, said a link between advertising to kids and obesity was “unlikely.” He cited statistics showing that rates of obesity vary widely across the country even though marketing to kids blankets the airwaves fairly evenly. “We strongly feel that both the overall trends in advertising and the geographic variance of the incidence of obesity argue against any suggestion that there is a link between advertising and obesity,” Mr. Powell said.

He may as well argue that advertising doesn’t work at all. Does he want to say that? Then his company is wasting a lot of money. The fact is you can smush such statistics and bend them any way you want to show anything you want.

Food companies are falling all over themselves trying to deflect the obesity problem, especially the childhood obesity problem, away from their shoulders. I can sympathize. To do otherwise would invite an avalanche of hungry lawyers. But General Mills, Kraft, Kellogg and other big food companies have a big responsibility. And it’s not to children. They must show quarterly profitability and revenue growth, and must achieve share price appreciation. That is best done these days by selling the most cheaply made, bad-for-you foodstuffs at the greatest profit. Let’s not forget that that is what they are in business for. To make money. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, magazines are not in business to answer a higher calling of informing the public. Magazines are in business to make money too.

But here's the rub. Obesity in the U.S. is getting out of hand, especially and tragically among children--even more tragically among low-income children. Food companies may not have noticed, but consumers, advocates and even some middle-ground and conservative legislators looking at the personal and financial cost of this trend are starting to line up together. And George W. Bush and Tom Delay won't be in office forever to keep the regulatory sharks at bay.

Food marketers that aren't rethinking their business model down to the bones of the company to include greater capital investment in developing good tasting food of higher quality with less sugar, fat and salt are merely playing for time. A CEO who is playing that game is just trying to hold on to the status quo and leave the mess for the next guy.

Saying that advertising bad-for-you food to kids at the youngest possible ages doesn't lead to obesity is like saying it's not the school's fault that Prince Harry didn't know what Nazis were. Of course, its the school's fault. It's also his Father's fault. And it's his fault that he has been so intellectually lazy that he thought it okay to dress up in swastikas. But IT IS also the school's fault and IT IS also the food companies' fault, in part, that obesity is on the rise. Making huge amounts of soda and chips available at ridiculously low prices and billboarding fries, pop and frankenfood in low-income inner city neighborhoods where parents and school administrators are at their wits end trying to reverse the obesity problem where they live is not exercising the kind of corporate responsibility consumers, parents and regulators are starting to look for in greater numbers.

Personal responsibility and personal choice has to play a prominent role in the discussion on obesity. Parental responsibility has to play a huge role. But if food companies think that consumers/voters are going to forever look the other way while food companies and media companies make all this as difficult as possible, they are kidding themselves. This all makes me wonder what goes through the minds of people who work at big food conglomerates, are able to buy food at a discount and are either obese themselves or have kids who are obese.

And now....I will go. My Kashi is getting soggy in my skim milk.



News, opinions, inflammatory meanderings and occasional ravings about the world of advertising, marketing and media. By marketing editor Burt Helm, Innovation Editor Helen Walters, and senior correspondent Michael Arndt.

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