TCS Daily


Sponge Bob, Wide Pants?

By John Luik - January 25, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series.

The assault has begun: Consumer interest groups and others are on the road to outlawing food advertising, based on a scientifically flawed and politically motivated Institute of Medicine study.

Led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, other consumer groups and parents plan to ask a Massachusetts court to enjoin Viacom and Kellogg from marketing so-called junk food to young children on the grounds that these foods directly harm kids' health.

If these groups have their way, the days of Sponge Bob Square Pants, the cartoon character who encourages kids to eat carrots, yogurt and Pop Tarts, are numbered. That's because it's folks like Bob coupled with a variety of other insidious food marketing techniques from Big Food that, according to CSPI and the other critics, are significant contributors to childhood obesity.

The consumer groups' claims rest mostly upon an IOM study released late last year: "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" That study, requested by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, claims that there is compelling evidence that links food advertising and children's expanding waistlines. As Sen. Harkin noted in response to the study, "The food industry doesn't spend $ 10 billion a year on ads to kids because they like to waste money. Their ads not only work, they work brilliantly."

CSPI was delirious about the report, calling it "a milestone that marks the beginning of the end of junk-food marketing to kids. The report sends a clear signal to food company executives and advertisers that the industry needs to completely rethink the way they do business." It's delirium echoed that of the IOM committee itself, one of whose members, Aimee Dorr of the University of California, Los Angeles, opined that the report is the "nail in the coffin" of food advertising.

It is nonsense.

Ever since the obesity epidemic became a constant on the front page and the evening news, critics of America's eating habits have been alleging that a large part of what makes us fat is the food industry's advertising, particularly of so-called junk foods, and that the only way to fix the fat problem is to restrict or completely ban such advertising.

Last year, the American Psychological Association issued its own report on advertising and children which argued, on extraordinarily thin evidence, that advertising to children was inherently unfair and deceptive. It called for a ban on all advertising to children below the age of eight. So it is hardly surprising that the IOM report suggests that either restrictions or bans might be appropriate if the food and advertising industries fail to change their ways.

But forcing an entire industry to change its marketing or the types of products it wishes to sell, under threat of government regulation, is hardly a minor matter. At the very least, such change should proceed only on the basis of the most comprehensive, rigorous and compelling evidence. And despite CSPI's claims, the IOM report's assumptions and evidence about the supposed link between food advertising and childhood obesity fails to come close to that standard. The arguments are not even reasoned, coherent and consistent. And the solutions stand almost no chance of working -- because they are based on faulty premises.

The Advertising Myth

What drives the IOM's problem with food marketing, and CSPI's resulting legal strategy, is its unargued for, perhaps even unconscious commitment to a particular view about what advertising does and how it works.

The IOM and CSPI believe in what students of advertising call the strong theory of advertising popularized by Vance Packard's 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. Packard and his contemporary adherents at the IOM believe that advertising changes people's attitudes through manipulative psychological techniques and through this is able to affect their buying behavior against their best interests.

In this view, advertising not only increases the sale of individual brands of food, but of all foods, and most particularly so-called junk foods. The authors of the report write that "food and beverage marketing influences the preferences and purchase requests of children, influences consumption, at least in the short term, [and] is a likely contributor to less healthful diets. ..."

But is this really the case? Is it correct to talk about a causal connection between the foods that are advertised to children and the food that children eat? Or more specifically, is there a causal connection -- not just speculation and "common sense" -- that leads from food advertising to fat kids? Does food advertising lead to kids eating junk food and does junk food lead to fat kids?

The Advertising Reality

Fifty years of careful research has shown that most advertising is directed towards the selling of brands, not categories of foods. The research also has shown something that might surprise some -- that many advertisements, some would say most, fail in their objectives and that advertising's effectiveness is not proportional to the amount that is spent.

For example, of the roughly 10,000 brands being advertised in any given year, the average consumer will buy only about 400. And data on individual marketing campaigns suggests advertising for established brands works only from 20-30% of the time. Advertising campaigns for new brands are successful even less often.

The evidence about how advertising works, about what it can and cannot do, and most crucially, about whether advertising restrictions or bans for certain products actually work, is extensive and varied. It comes from econometric studies, case histories of actual advertising campaigns and analyses of advertising expenditures in particular markets. Studies have looked at whether there are links between the expenditures and increased consumption of particular products; they've compared countries with and without advertising restrictions or bans for various products and their effects.

For example, in 1982 Brian T. Sturgess of the University of Nottingham in the UK (Dispelling the Myth: The Effects of Total Advertising Expenditure on Aggregate Consumption) looked at the claim that advertising increased the consumption of various products and services, a proposition put forward by U.S. economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and an integral assumption of the Institute of Medicine. Sturgess' rigorous analysis, using the powerful Box-Jenkins techniques of time series modeling, found that the evidence did not support the claim that changes in advertising cause changes in consumption.

A similar analysis by Peter Kyle of the University of Lancaster (The Impact of Advertising on Markets, 1982) looked at food advertising and consumption in the UK and found no evidence to support the "popular myth that advertising will increase market size." And lest one think that these findings are simple statistical freaks that apply only to the Brits, similar studies about advertising not increasing total consumption have been replicated in the United States (Richard A. Ashley, Clive Granger and Richard L. Schmalensee 1980 and Robert Jacobson and Franco Nicosia, 1981).

Recently two other studies have looked at food advertising's effects on consumption and come to similar conclusions. The first, a study by Maxwell K. Hsu et al., "Does advertising stimulate sales or mainly deliver signals?" in 2002, looked at U.S. advertising expenditures from 1948-1995 and found that advertising did not increase product sales. Even more interestingly, the authors concluded that the advertising-demand connection was actually the reverse of that often suggested in that increased sales were the causal driver of more advertising.

The second study, by Todd Zywicki et al., "Obesity and Advertising Policy" in a 2004 George Mason Law Review, examined three possible causal mechanisms that would support the claim that food advertising caused childhood obesity: children are watching more television; the amount of advertising on television has increased; and the proportion of food ads has grown. According to the authors, the available evidence does not support any of these claims.

Next: The IOM's red herring - influencing diets vs. causing obesity.

John Luik is writing a book about health care policy.
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9 Comments

Doesn't make sense
Parents think their kids will want junk food if they see ads fro it on TV. The junk food producers think so too and they have lots of unbiased research telling them that. You seem to think that junk food advertizing is a waste of money because it does not effect kids. Is your opinion of American captains of industry that low?

Humanity needs guidance
The left's opinion of humanity is low, which is why the left believes that it is a necessary prequisite to humanity's long term survival that the left guide, er ... rule, humanity.

How is it that a child can command his parent - an adult charged with his care & moral education - to provide him with goods and services that will endanger both? Because human adults are spineless simps, unable to withstand even the most easily-resisted temptations, even when the pay-off for doing so is huge and this is well-understood. And since humanity comprises spineless adult simps and childlike consumers of information incapable of determining for themselves what is unfair and deceptive and what is usefull, the left must decide what people shall be allowed to choose and what they shall be allowed to know.

So, LiberalGoodman, when will you step out of the closet and begin calling yourself Big Brother?

Liberal who?
Prudence (what was here name) was Ben Franklin's alter ego for some of his writings. I seem to see a similar tounge in cheek style from goodman.

Franklin would have loved cutting apart the nanny state. I wonder what a 21st century version of Poor Richard's Almanac would have to say.

The vast majority of advertising is aimed at market share, rather than creating a new market, (cell phones, ipods etc notwithstanding.)

We have a 3-year old granddaughter. You wouldn't believe how many different elmos she has. That's advertising.

Only some liberals are nannies
I'm one left of center guy who wants folks from both political poles to LEAVE ME ALONE. This also extends to right wingers who, because they won the last election, want to tell me what my family values should be. These busy-bodies are just as annoying as the food police.
I have a 7 and a 9 year old and TOGETHER they weigh 91 pounds; and they both eat their share of sugary snacks and watch their share of TV, including the commercials. However, they also play outside--a lot. Parents need to to realize that if their children are hung up on advertising, they probably need to spend more time running around. Without the proper amount of physical activity, kids will be overweight no matter what they eat.

As long as it doesn't have to do with what goes on in the bedroom...
It's not the left that prevents advertising condoms on tv, censors government-funded doctors from giving information about birth control as an alternative to abortion, regards homosexuality as something that citizens need to be guided away from, and all the rest.

Why is it that efforts to try to avoid advertising products that have been shown to be harmful get the big brother label, while efforts to advertise products that have been shown to have beneficial effects are just called "moral."

No Subject
If it is true, as the writer states, that,

"The research also has shown something that might surprise some -- that many advertisements, some would say most, fail in their objectives and that advertising’s effectiveness is not proportional to the amount that is spent."

Then there should be no complaints when groups call for a ban or limits on advertising. In fact, this should make companies happier because they can now save more (since advertisements are not that effective, anyway). Finally, consumers should also win because they should now be able to pay for products and services at lower prices.

At the very least, tools like consumer reports, combined with studies from doctors, scientists, and other professionals about the good and bad effects of given products and services should allow consumers to decide what to buy and what not to buy.

No Need for Advertisements
If it is true, as the writer states, that,

"The research also has shown something that might surprise some -- that many advertisements, some would say most, fail in their objectives and that advertising’s effectiveness is not proportional to the amount that is spent."

Then there should be no complaints when groups call for a ban or limits on advertising. In fact, this should make companies happier because they can now save more (since advertisements are not that effective, anyway). Finally, consumers should also win because they should now be able to pay for products and services at lower prices.

At the very least, tools like consumer reports, combined with studies from doctors, scientists, and other professionals about the good and bad effects of given products and services should allow consumers to decide what to buy and what not to buy.

Uncle Sugar's help
Why do Americans want some kinds of speech banned? Speaking free of government interference is what we're talking about here, right?

Speaking is nothing more than transferring information to establish an association between like minds. All information of whatever character tends to flow to those who value it most, either positively or negatively.

Those who place a negative value on a bit or type of information would like to staunch its flow. But at what cost? At the cost of those who value the information most positively AND the association between their like minds. Consequently, banning speech also bans the communicative association between two or more people. And keeping like minds apart keeps their opposition to government power dispersed. Not surprisingly, throughout history this has been the primary purpose of banning speech.

This is why banning speech is so dangerous and why demanding that Uncle Sugar do so to protect our kids' teeth is suspect. The Constitution is not there just to protect us from the government, but from each other and ourselves as well. By limiting what the government can do, we limit what we can do through the government to each other and to ourselves.

Balanced view
What ever happened to exercising more, and to parents saying no? Coney Island was selling cotton candy and Nathan's hot dogs back in the 50's and there was no so-called obesity epidemic then.

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