Other Countries Restrict Predatory Junk Food Ads, but America Won’t Budge
In 2000, McDonald’s launched its fourth series of Teenie Beanies: a cobranded effort with toy maker Ty Inc. that transformed its fiended-over Beanie Babies into miniature Happy Meal stuffers.
At the time, my allowance was $4 per week, which left me about 35 cents short of being able to buy a kid’s meal plus the $2 supplement for the premium plush toy. I recycled soda cans to earn the extra dough, and every Monday after school, I stopped in to get a cheeseburger, fries, an orange Hi-C drink (it had vitamins!), and whatever miniature don’t-call-it-a-stuffed-animal was next on the list.
I knew my dad would’ve been mad if he found out, so I ditched the evidence in a Dumpster and ate dinner as if I hadn’t consumed 700 calories two hours prior.
I hated the Teenie Beanies. Even at eight years old I vaguely understood that any economic system using fad toys to peddle trans fats was ostensibly a bad thing. But those McLimited-time-only, sweatshop-made plush toys controlled my elementary school’s playground hierarchy. There was nothing more emotionally devastating than being barred from the cool-kid lunch table because you failed to get Dotty the Dalmatian—and that week was play-with-Dotty week.
By the time Teenie Beanies were replaced with Yu-Gi-Oh cards or Beyblades or Tech Deks, I had clandestinely eaten tens of thousands of extra calories’ worth of Happy Meals. Ty Inc., Ronald McDonald, and the scores of high-paid marketing executives had done their duty.
One could argue that this is just a side effect of capitalism: The free market somehow demanded that Beanie Babies be paired with cheeseburgers, and for anyone to intervene and attempt to slow those marketing efforts—despite clearly targeting kids and exacerbating the childhood obesity epidemic—would weaken the economic system that built the world. But not all countries are abiding by that logic.
America lags behind South Korea, the United Kingdom, and now, with a bill introduced on Tuesday, Russia in protecting children from predatory junk food marketing tactics.
So, Why Should You Care? In 2010, the World Health Organization published 16 pages’ worth of recommendations for ways in which United Nations member states could reduce the influence of junk food marketing to children. The document cites a study from the U.K. that revealed that 62.5 percent of all advertisements during children’s programming were for food products, compared with 18.4 percent during prime-time programming, and that “the majority of adverts seen by children around the globe are for heavily processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.”
The U.K. is credited with passing the world’s first anti-junk-food marketing legislation in 2006, when restrictions were put on television advertisements for products containing egregious amounts of salt, fat, or sugar targeting consumers younger than 16. By 2009, kids in the U.K. were exposed to 37 percent less junk food advertising, and the department of health reported that annual expenditure for child-themed food and drink advertisements across all media decreased by 41 percent, from 103 million pounds in 2003 to 61 million pounds by 2007.
In 2008, South Korea passed its own law forbidding the airing of junk food ads on TV between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., the prime viewing hours for children. Child welfare activist groups were worried about the detrimental effect Western fast-food chains were having on Korea’s childhood obesity rate—which was 20 percent at the time—and wanted to limit ads to those promoting healthier, native foods.
Now Russia, which already has an embargo on Western-made junk food, may be following Korea and the U.K. in restricting predatory ads. As reported by the newspaper Kommersant, parliament member Vasily Shestakov has introduced a bill that would restrict the advertising of sugar-containing sodas, sweets, margarine, potato chips, and many types of fast-food to children.
Essentially, Shestakov’s bill would regulate junk food ads the same way it regulates ads for alcohol and tobacco. The Russian Association of Ad Placers claims it has already taken measures to self-regulate by agreeing not to target advertisements to children younger than 12, but history shows that the effects of self-regulation are limited.
The Federal Trade Commission presented a report to Congress in 2008 revealing that food and drink companies were spending $1.6 billion every year targeting children. After multiple makers signed letters urging the manufacturers to self-regulate, spending on child-focused ads dropped 20 percent by 2012. But a representative recently said there was no plan to produce a third report, effectively ending all American oversight of junk food marketing. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a public call for all fast-food ads to be banned from television in 2012, but policy makers never took it seriously. What do they know? They’re just doctors.
More than one-third of all American children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and as of 2014, the U.S. has the fifth-highest childhood obesity rate in the world. Different economic and political structures are at play, but whether it’s South Korea or the U.K. or Russia or the U.S., childhood obesity is similarly problematic and deserves to be addressed.
The only legislation passed in the States thus far to protect kids from predatory junk food marketing tactics was in San Francisco in 2011. There, the city assembly voted to ban free Happy Meal toys. McDonald’s then responded by charging an additional 10 cents per toy, making the rule completely useless.
If the 10-cent surcharge had been around when I was a kid, I would have had to recycle an additional four cans per week to get my Teenie Beanie fix. So it might not be completely useless after all.