Sick to our stomachs: Food industry spent $1.6 billion to influence children in 2006

Last November, I wrote about the appointment of eating psychology expert Brian Wansink to a key post at the USDA. I applauded his nomination but noted that his office — and the entire federal government — is vastly outspent by the food industry. I cited data from Marion Nestle’s “Food Politics” that the USDA spends about $300 million on nutrition education annually, with much of that going to research projects, agricultural extension, and other narrowly focused programs. In 1999, the food industry spent over $30 billion to market their products; less than 3% of that went to promote fruits, vegetables, grains, or beans.

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report (PDF) showing that 44 major food and beverage marketers spent $1.6 billion in 2006 to convince children under 17 to buy their products. The FTC reports that food marketing appears in many forms: as direct TV or print advertisements, on the Internet, in contests, as “advergames”, or as a tie-in to a movie or television program.

Approximately $870 million was aimed at children under the age of 12, and $1 billion was aimed at adolescents between 12 and 17 (the sum of these two figures exceeds $1.6 billion because about $300 million of the spending hit both age groups). Marketing of sodas accounted for a huge portion, almost $500 million. Restaurant foods got almost $300 million; breakfast cereal, $236 million. Fruits and vegetables are barely a speck: about $11.4 million (that’s about 0.7% of the total).

The report includes several recommendations for the food industry and others. For example, the food industry should have serious nutritional standards for all advertising and marketing to children under 12, ideally using neutral third-parties to develop the standards. They also recommend that the entertainment industry take action by limiting licensing of popular characters to healthy foods — for example, SpongeBob should promote citrus fruits or spinach instead of salty fried snacks (Nickelodeon has pledged to limit its characters to healthy food promotions by 2009).

You can read the full report at the FTC (PDF), or summaries from the Associated Press or the FTC. An article in the The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity by researchers from the University of Minnesota provides another look at marketing and advertising to children, as does Michele Simon’s book “Appetite for Profit.”

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One Responseto “Sick to our stomachs: Food industry spent $1.6 billion to influence children in 2006”

  1. Here’s a radical idea: Similar to requirements of tobacco and alcohol advertising, what if a percentage of the money spent in advertising “junk food” was required to be spent on vouchers for low income people redeemable for non-processed foods and/or programs promoting truly healthful eating?  Sort of a “sin tax” for nutritionally dubious food.