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December 21-27, 2005

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News Flash: Junk Is Junk!

By Stett Holbrook

I JUST GOT an email from the good people at Burger King touting their new triple Whopper, a 3/4-pound heart attack between two sesame seed buns. It's a joint marketing campaign with Universal Pictures to promote the release of King Kong.

For a limited time, the King Kong promotion will also include chocolate-banana milkshakes (banana, ape—get it?) in sizes ranging from 16 to 42 ounces. Forty-two ounces. I know how I feel after drinking 40 ounces of malt liquor. My bowels quake at the thought of 42 ounces of chocolate-banana slurry sloshing around my stomach.

"A King Kong promotion was a natural fit for the Burger King brand," says Brian Gies, Burger King's vice president of marketing. "Now we have a Whopper sandwich that's sure to satisfy even Kong-sized cravings." If eating Burger King can make a grown man talk like that, imagine what it must do to children.

Or better yet, read the Institute of Medicine's widely anticipated report, released earlier this month, titled "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" I'd say threat. The comprehensive report found television advertising has a negative effect on the diet of young children under 12. TV ads for foods and beverages have a direct influence on what children choose to eat, and the bulk of this marketing is geared to high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food, the report found. The Institute of Medicine is a private, nonprofit institution that provides health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.

Hard to believe, isn't it? The next thing the experts are going to say is that huffing airplane glue is harmful to kids as well.

Of course junk food commercials are bad for kids. But I don't blame TV and its corporate sponsors for kids' sugar-addled minds and the obesity epidemic that plagues them. I blame lame-ass parents.

Don't get me wrong. Junk food makers have all the integrity of the tobacco industry. The food industry spent $15 billion last year on advertising and marketing directed at young people. According to the Institute of Medicine's report, junk food companies often use characters that appeal to children such as SpongeBob SquarePants, Spiderman and Scooby-Doo to do their bidding. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 30 percent of children and teenagers in the United States—9.18 million—are obese or on the way. The report also found that food advertising targeted to kids has increased dramatically in the past decade.

Advertising is about selling product and making money. Ensuring that children don't grow up fat, diabetic and couch-bound is just not a priority, nor would I expect ad execs to make it so. At least not until fresh fruit, whole grains and water become big moneymakers. But these multimillion-dollar food companies wouldn't have all those millions if people weren't buying the crap they make. It's not toddlers who load up their shopping carts with Twinkies and Pepsi. It's parents, the same people who let kids sit slack-jawed in front of the TV all day.

My son is only 14 months old, and already I can see TV working its dark magic on him. Colorful, rapid-fire images are irresistible. It's impossible not to watch. I don't have cable and so I don't watch TV, and neither does he, and that includes Baby Frankenstein, I mean Einstein. (But I do watch my share of movies.) I'm not naive enough to think my son will live a TV-free life, nor should he. Hell, I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons and network TV and I don't think I'm the worse for it. Sure, I could have spent all that time reading but then I would have missed all those Land of the Lost episodes. But it wasn't up to me how much TV I watched or what I ate for dinner. It was up to my mom.

She'd click off the TV when it had been on too long. When it came to food, she didn't just buy the sugary, starchy stuff I asked for. She made sure we ate well and only ate sweets and junk food in moderation. Maybe that's why today I don't have much of a sweet tooth and prefer water over soda pop.

Advertising aimed at children is a powerful force that's becoming more sophisticated and insidious all the time. But as my mom taught me, and I hope to teach my son, parents who give a shit are even more powerful.

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