Stalking the Couch Potato, Part 2

By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson

Photo: charliesoto  / PD Photo

Photo: charliesoto / Photobucket

Here is a second excerpt from the sample chapter accompanying the proposal for a book on childhood obesity and what to do about it. My writing partner, neuroscientist Elliott Blass, and I are talking about refocusing the proposal (and the book). Our aim is to inspire parents, grandparents, and others who care for and about young children to look at the influence that advertising has over their food preferences – and, perhaps, to express their thoughts in a message to their legislators.

If you missed Part 1 of this chapter, it’s here.

Spokesclowns and Other Evasions

Even though the Federal Communications Commission limits the time devoted to commercials in an hour of TV programming, advertisers employ perfectly legal ways of circumventing this restriction. For example, an adult dressed as Ronald McDonald, spokesclown for the fast food chain, may visit a children’s program. The restaurant itself need never be named; any three year old child will make the connection without prompting.

The effectiveness of this approach cannot be exaggerated: According to an Institute of Medicine report, at three or four most children perceive the McDonald’s clown as the ultimate expert on what they should eat – more knowledgeable by far than their own parents, grandparents, or teachers. A segment on a children’s show in which Ronald McDonald appears is enough to ensure that some little viewers will lobby to be taken to the golden arches for dinner. The clown is instantly recognizable by his costume, and the commercial time restriction does not apply.

Product placement is another potent technique manufactures use to keep their wares in the public eye. This one is not just for children; an alert adult will find brand names visible in situation comedies, dramas, and everything in between.

Reese’s Pieces enjoyed a 65 percent sales increase with the showing of the popular and profitable movie “ET.” Coca-Cola paid ABC TV $20 million for one year in which judges on the TV show “American Idol” had 32-ounce red cups with the Coke logo in front of them at all times. They didn’t have to drink the soda; they could fill the cups with water, for all the Coca-Cola company cared, as long as the red cups were there every time the camera turned to the judges.

The price was cheap enough; “American Idol” was the most-watched TV program in 2009, according to the Nielsen rating company. After one show alone, 90 million people voted by telephone for their favorite singer.

Techniques used to advertise to children are every bit as sophisticated as those targeting adults. The children’s market is divided into eight segments, by sex and by age group (2-5 years, 6-10, 11-13, and 14-19). Ad agencies develop a specially tailored message developed for each group for each specific product. Again, this degree of attention and specificity is worth the expense; in 2007, nearly 28% of the U.S. population was 19 or younger.

Ads Are Everywhere

Television is hardly alone in its bombardment of children (and adults) with advertisements food and drink best left untouched or reserved for special occasions. Ads are ubiquitous. They are on the radio, on the DVDs that quell the incessant question “Are we there yet?” on long car trips, embedded in hand-held game devices.

On the Internet, there is a special category of video games known as “advergames,” a term brought to public attention in a Wired magazine “Jargon Watch” column in 2001. Commissioned by large companies, these games are designed to promote brand recognition in children, who are encouraged to register to win prizes. When they do register, they provide customer data to the company. These games also encourage children to bring their friends to the site to play, turning them into word of mouth marketers and promoting every advertiser’s dream, “viral marketing.”

You can, if you dare, pull the plug on the TV, turn off the radio, forgo the DVD player in the car, and not allow your offspring Internet access at home, but they still won’t be insulated from enticements to eat poorly. Children at the shopping mall are bombarded with ads. In 2005, teens spent an average of nearly $50 per week at malls; much of that was spent in the food court. On the way there and back they will pass billboards advertising snacks and fast food restaurants. Take them out to the ball game and there are more signs lining the walls, and electronic ads on the scoreboards. At stock car races, you can’t miss the advertisements on the cars themselves, as well as on the drivers’ and pit crew uniforms. In winter sports, winning downhill racers whip off their skis and snowboards and hold them upright to display the advertisements on their bottoms while they give interviews to sportscasters.

Children who take public transportation to school see food, drink, and fast food restaurant ads when many are apt to be hungry because they didn’t get breakfast before they left home. Nor do school buses provide refuge: many cash-strapped school districts allow advertising both outside and inside the vehicles. In the school building itself, in many localities the bombardment doesn’t stop. Vending machines that are euphemistically called “alternative” food choices are often in the lobby, or just outside the cafeteria. Like the school bus ads, these reflect the tightening budgets that taxpayers provide the educational system. Pushed to the wall, so to speak, administrators make space for advertisements as part of a deal with snack and soda vendors – the latter known as “pouring rights.”

Then there is Channel One News, a 12-minute program broadcast by satellite to middle and high school children across the country. Of the 12 minutes, two are frankly commercial advertisements. In return for showing the programs to their students, schools get favorable rates leasing television sets, DVRs (DVD recording machines), and satellite dishes.

Critics observe that the schools are providing Channel One with a captive audience, forced to watch ads and wasting class time. In a 2006 report, the American Academy of Pediatrics cited research showing that children remembered the commercials they saw on Channel One News more than they remembered the news. The Media Education Foundation has a documentary entitled Captive Audience that shows how little time is dedicated to actual news; it says the majority of time is spent on soft news and corporate marketing and public relations to promote products, bringing consumerism into the school setting.

Even day care centers, licensed homes for preschoolers, and after school facilities for children whose parents both work are apt to provide television and videos as one, if not the only, activity, giving more exposure to commercials and product placements. This relentless targeting of youngsters gives rise to a set of eating preferences and behavior that almost guarantees obesity and malnutrition. If a corporation were a person, then dozens of enormous persons would be stalking millions of little children.

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2 Responses to “Stalking the Couch Potato, Part 2”

  1. I’m wondering if anyone knows what Canada’s immigration needs are. As an aged fart, I probably don’t develop the “skills” they want. They’ll clearly observe that I’m fleeing a hit a brick wall country, looking for decent health care.

  2. Steve, in December 2004, for reasons you may be able to guess, I went to the Canadian immigration web site and took a quiz to determine whether my husband and I were eligible to immigrate. We were not — too old, and our income was almost entirely from my freelance writing business. I don’t have the web link, but if you search on “immigration” and “Canada” you can probably find out whether you’re eligible.

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