Politics & Policy

Free Spongebob!

He should be able to endorse whatever food he wants.

Don’t expect to see this stirring slogan festooning t-shirts and banners anytime soon. But do expect to hear a lot about young Master SquarePants, and how he and fellow villains Scooby-Doo, Shrek, Dora the Explorer, and Tony the Tiger are consigning America’s youngsters to disease, disability, and death. On Tuesday, the Institute of Medicine issued a long-awaited report–requested by Senator Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), not coincidentally–that accused food companies of using popular cartoon characters and other dirty tricks to manipulate children into buying junk food and becoming obese. The institute demanded that advertisers either change their practices within the next two years or be subjected to a new round of federal regulation of what children can see and hear about food.

The report generated a flurry of news stories across the country, virtually of them uncritically passing along the institute’s purported findings and assumptions. “Panel Faults Food Packaging for Kid Obesity,” reported the Wall Street Journal. “Report Links TV Ads and Childhood Obesity,” stated the New York Times. “Food marketing is endangering the health of our children, pure and simple,” senator Harkin told USA Today.

In reality, the report didn’t establish this fact at all. Summarizing dozens of studies going back decades, the institute’s report comes to such shocking conclusions as this: Children recall the brand names of heavily advertised foods and tend to ask for them instead of, say, generic beets and turnip greens. According to the Times report, Ellen Wartella, a member of the institute panel and provost of the University of California at Riverside, said the report had “proven that food advertising, primarily on television, influences the diet, preferences, and requests of children under 12.”

“We have not had that kind of information before,” she said.

Really? What did she and her colleagues think food manufacturers and restaurants have been doing over the past 50 years of advertising to children–squandering gazillions of dollars in a pointless exercise? Of course food advertising works. That’s why rational advertisers keep doing it. And anyone who has children knows that ads and packages help to shape children’s requests for the latest snack foods or menu items. It is a big leap from that fact to proof of a causal relationship between, say, Sponge Bob exhorting kids on TV to eat Pop Tarts and kids getting fat. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a line from the institute’s report that didn’t get quite as much attention from the national media: “current evidence is not sufficient to arrive at any finding about a causal relationship from television advertising to [obesity] among children and youth.”

Careful examination of the real trends in childhood behavior and health help to explain this missing link. For one thing, young children rarely buy their own food. Even older kids, who might exercise some choice in the lunchroom or out with friends, still have most of their dietary decisions made by parents or other adults. The latter may take particular foods or brands kids like into account–which is neither nefarious nor harmful in itself–but they also take many other factors into account, including nutrition, balance, portion, and cost. You don’t have to be a food-industry shill to recognize the truth in the insistence that “junk” food is okay in moderation. That some kids ask for Shrek-brand cereal becomes a health problem only if they are allowed to stuff themselves with it.

As is true more generally in discussions about advertising regulation, the food-ad restrictionists employ a remarkably crude model for how ads affect actual behavior. Told that advertising wields fiendishly irresistible power over consumer decisions, most advertising professionals don’t know whether to laugh or cry. They know from bitter experience that most new brands don’t succeed and that consumers interpret advertising using a wide variety of filters that advertisers can’t control. Moreover, if academic researchers truly believe that kids prefer pizza or cheeseburgers to celery sticks because of manipulative advertising, they really need to get out more.

A more fundamental problem with the would-be ad prohibitionists’ thesis is that it doesn’t match up well with history. The recent upswing in childhood obesity has not occurred during a time of intensified TV advertising aimed at children, which has existed for decades. In fact, American children are now gaining weight even as they watch somewhat less commercial television than previous generations did. One study estimated that children saw about 15-percent fewer TV ads in 2003 than their counterparts did in 1994. Alas, that does not mean today’s kids are playing outside more. They simply have many more commercial-free alternatives such as premium cable, tapes and DVDs, and video and computer games. Perhaps one could blame Shrek or SpongeBob for that–if one were inclined to excuse parents–but it wouldn’t have anything to do with their product endorsements.

Another unfortunate fact for advocates of regulating food advertising is that their pet idea has already been done to the max–that is, in the form of outright bans on ads targeting children–in places such as Sweden and Quebec. The obesity rate of Swedish children differs little from that of British children, however. The same is true in Quebec in comparison to other Canadian provinces.

Furthermore, the line of causality from advertising to obesity must run through the intermediate point of eating more, or at least more calorie-laden, food. But there is surprisingly little agreement about this. Federal data reveal that average caloric intake of U.S. teens rose by only one percent from 1980 to 2000, while obesity rose 10 percent. Sedentary lifestyles seem to be the more significant factor. During the same period, average physical activity dropped by 13 percent. In the British medical journal Lancet earlier this year, researchers concluded that the extent of exercise “plays an important role in weight gain, with no parallel evidence that energy intake had a similar role.” I’m not necessarily saying that American children shouldn’t eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer curly fries. But inactivity is the far more serious culprit here, and the institute is doing no family any favors by suggesting otherwise.

In October, the U.S. House of Representatives recognized the threat posed by holding food companies responsible for obesity. By a 306 to 120 margin, it enacted the so-called Cheeseburger Bill to stipulate that manufacturers, retailers, and other related businesses can’t be held liable in court for damages associated with the consumption of any legal, unadulterated food product. The Bush administration, industry groups, and the general public (by a 90 percent margin in a recent Gallup poll) agree that government should not attempt to combat obesity by going after the makers and sellers of food.

Internalizing this, activists have decided to go after advertising. That’s the political decision behind this week’s events. But polls show that most parents don’t buy even this, more limited cause. Count this parent as part of the sensible majority, too. I submit that even immature aquatic animals living in submerged tropical fruits–and, of course, their corporate handlers–should have the right to endorse whatever products they choose. Sign me up for the cause.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a public policy think tank in Raleigh, N.C, and the author of Selling the Dream: Why Advertising is Good Business..

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