CSPI Supports Harkin Initiative on Junk-Food Ads Aimed at Kids

Statement of CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson


Each day, American kids get exposed to scores of commercial messages, and probably half of those are for food. If advertisers were trying to get kids to try new vegetables, or to eat more fresh fruit, or to switch from white bread to whole-wheat bread, I’d be all for it. But the overwhelming majority of the food ads kids see are for junk foods: Soda. Candy. Cookies. Sugary cereals. Fatty snacks. Fast food. And fast-food companies aren’t pushing salads on kids but burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets fried in partially hydrogenated oil. And make no mistake: Ads for these foods aren’t targeting parents, they’re targeting kids. And its time to pull our kids out of the crosshairs.

It’s bad enough that nearly all of the foods that are marketed are junk foods. But the tactics that food companies use are designed to exploit the innocence and naiveté of children. In some cases food marketing is so subtle that even the most media-savvy youngster wouldn’t recognize it as advertising: Product placements in movies. Using cartoon and movie characters to brand fast-food meals. Encouragement to purchase junk food so kids can play a game on the Internet. Some food companies, not content with just having a vending machine in school hallways—though that’s bad enough—also worm their way into the classroom. The cumulative effect is to convince kids that foods that are bad for their health are the rule and not the exception. Messages about healthy eating—even those delivered by parents—are greatly outnumbered, and ultimately crowded out of kids’ minds.

The food industry says that parents are in charge of their kids’ diets. But I think parents are sick and tired of being lectured to about their parental responsibilities by an industry that tells kids that it’s normal to eat a bowl of chocolate-chip cookies for breakfast. Or a 20-ounce Coke during the middle of a school day, when parents can’t easily guide their kids’ food choices.

The self-regulatory regime the industry ballyhoos for is a joke. The Children’s Advertising Review Unit plays a role, but it states that part of its mission is “preserving their freedom to direct their messages to young kids.” By “their,” CARU means the advertisers that pay CARU’s bills. Well, I think it’s time for a regulatory regime that is designed to protect kids, not advertisers. CSPI has developed its own set of guidelines for responsible food marketing to kids, and we encourage companies that are serious about corporate responsibility to adopt them.

Our guidelines, unlike CARU’s, actually take nutrition into account. Right now, there is no food, or rather I should say, no combination of fat, flour, sugar, salt, and additives that CARU wouldn’t allow to be marketed to kids. And our guidelines would have companies end the most manipulative of food marketing tactics, where the industry’s guidelines just nibble at the edges of the problem.

We applaud Senator Tom Harkin for his leadership on behalf of parents and their children’s health, and support fully his efforts to shield kids from junk-food marketing and advertising.

Related Links and Downloads: 
Contact Info: 

Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at] or Ariana Stone (astone[at]