Report looks at influence of TV advertising on diets

SpongeBob, Shrek, Dora the Explorer, Jimmy Neutron and other popular kidvid characters should take a tip from Popeye and encourage children to eat healthy foods, a new federal report advised.

Also, food marketers would do well to refocus their kid-TV spots away from junky, fatty treats and onto good-for-the-body fare, or risk a congressional mandate forcing them to do so, report said.

“Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?” compiled by the National Academies of Science’s Institute of Medicine and released Tuesday, concentrated on determining the influence of TV advertising on children’s preferences for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and drinks.

While concluding that “strong evidence” exists for a link between food ads on TV and kids’ bad eating habits, report noted among its recommendations that programming has a role to play in helping kids to eat right.

“The media and entertainment industry should direct its extensive power to promote healthful foods and beverages for children and youth,” report said. “To implement this recommendation, media and entertainment should incorporate … foods, beverages and storylines that promote healthful diets.”

Report, funded by federal money through the Centers for Disease Control, evokes memory of toon character Popeye, who gained strength to defeat bad guys by eating spinach, and who had profound impact on children’s eating habits when the comic strip first appeared almost 80 years ago.

But contemporary U.S. food marketing has all but erased positive dietary images for the young, report said. “Prevailing pattern of food and beverage marketing to children in America represents, at best, a missed opportunity, and, at worst, a direct threat to the health of the next generation.”

Report suggested TV advertisers be given two years to respond voluntarily to recommendations. “But if voluntary efforts … are unsuccessful in shifting the emphasis away from high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages to the advertising of healthful foods and beverages, Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift on both broadcast and cable television.”

Report made no mention of trying to force programmers to incorporate healthy diets into storylines.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who requested the report last year, said in a statement: “This report proves that the onslaught of junk food marketing is endangering the health of our children. We would like to think that SpongeBob SquarePants, Shrek, and the Disney princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters, but they are being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices. This must stop.”

Nickelodeon, which features some top-rated kid shows, issued a statement saying it had long supported “turning the tide on child obesity,” and that “we will continue to urge our marketing partners to get on board the good food movement and improve the lives of kids.”

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