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A dvertising is a staple of modern, capitalist societies. Arising in the course of the nineteenth century, its goal was to encourage the consumption of specific objects. Celebrity advertising, begun in late-nineteenth-century Britain, used glamour to sell things. Few or no questions were asked about the safety or efficacy of the things sold. It has become the way that producers communicate with their consumers. However, today, many pose the question of where the line should be drawn in regard to potentially dangerous advertisements. In recent decades, the nation witnessed the battle between antismoking lobbyists advocating the censorship of tobacco ads and the tobacco industry's marketing platform. This came as a result of research regarding the links between cancer and smoking cigarettes.
Similarly, some people are up in arms at the "irresponsible behavior" of the food industry in relation to its advertisements of junk food. The basis of their argument is that "advertising of food products alters consumers' preferences for foods so that they consume more of the advertised foods than they would have absent the advertising" (Zywicki et al. 2004). Thus, advertising is theorized to play a powerful role in shaping the behavior of denizens of society. Advertisers, as a result, are charged with the responsibility of ensuring morality in what they endorse. When they fail at this, the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) gets involved in regulating what the public sees.
In light of the obesity epidemic that is claimed to be sweeping the nation, there has been fierce controversy regarding whether or not the Government should intervene to curb advertising of "junk food" to children. Junk food can be understood as snacks, candy, and breakfast food that have little to no nutritional value. Of the over-10,000 food and beverage commercials children see a year, less than 2 percent are for "foods that promote a balanced diet such as fruits, milk, vegetables, and cheese" (Sommer 2006). However, more than two-thirds of these television commercials are for junk food. The U.S. Government claims that "an estimated 10% of America's preschoolers are dangerously overweight and that obesity rates for elementary school students have tripled in the last three decades" (Anon. 2005). Thus, some argue that the Government should get involved in censoring television ads for specific foods aimed at children.
The traditional food logos and icons aimed at children, such as "Ronald McDonald" and "Captain Crunch," designed to persuade children to demand certain foods, have become "one of the most contentious aspects of the nation's struggle with obesity" (Mishra 2005). Similar to the controversy that raged regarding the use of the "Joe Camel" cartoon as a marketing ploy of Camel cigarettes from 1987 to 1997 aimed at younger smokers, the food industry creates "cool" "pop" culture icons aimed at children which are viewed as causing them to make poor food choices. (Like many of the "junk food" manufacturers, the R.J. Reynolds Company, which manufactures Camels, denied any intention in appealing to the youngest members of their audience.)
The food industry spends over 10 billion dollars a year trying to shape the appetite of children (Mishra 2005). However, parallel to the claims of the tobacco companies in denying the relationship between tobacco and lung cancer (Brandt 2007), the food industry insists that there is no direct linkage between junk-food marketing and childhood obesity.
Yet, some companies are taking responsibility for the effect of their marketing campaigns. For example, Lance Friedmann, Senior Vice President at Kraft, admits that "advertising plays a role" in influencing children's eating habits (Mishra 2005). Thus, Kraft—as well as Coca-Cola—is voluntarily limiting its advertisements aimed at children (especially those aimed at kids younger than twelve years of age). Kraft now "only runs commercials featuring healthy foods such as sugar-free drinks, low-fat meat products, and whole-grain products" (Mishra 2005) aimed at children. This is a drastic change from their traditional advertising campaigns, which gained success through products like Oreos (with excess saturated fats) and Kool-Aid (with excess sugar).
Additionally, McDonald's, the home of Ronald McDonald, has altered its advertising, and even its menu. In 2004, McDonald's announced its program committed to "balanced lifestyles." The fast-food franchises added healthy options, such as salads and fruit, to its menu in order to afford its customers more options. However, it may be the case that McDonald's adopted healthy alternatives in order to avoid class-action law suits. In 2002, McDonald's faced a landmark lawsuit, in which the teenage plaintiffs accused the restaurant of fraud. They claimed that McDonald's failure to "disclose clearly and conspicuously the ingredients" (Wald 2003) of its hamburgers was a violation of New York state's consumer fraud statutes. They, therefore, claimed that the restaurant should be liable for their health conditions: obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol. Although the case was thrown out by the judge, it still set a precedent in regard to responsibility of food distributors and advertisers. The teens' lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, made an interesting point that, "young individuals are not in a position to make a choice after the onslaught of advertising and promotions" (Wald 2003). Another possible reason for McDonald's menu change is Morgan Spurlock's documentary, Super Size Me, which demonstrated the health damage that a McDonald's-only diet could do. After the film's release, McDonald's dropped the "super size" option from their menu. Therefore, it is not accurate to say that McDonald's voluntarily made their menu and advertisements more health-minded. Rather, the company was forced to respond to public pressure to reform.
On the other hand, there are those that promote weight-loss methods to excess. In fact, diet advertisements are ubiquitous in magazines, television, and the media at large. However, fast-fix diet promotions that promise impossible results are becoming more and more common. For example, diet pills are the new miracle weight-loss solution, or at least this is what their commercials guarantee. On December 9, 2003, the FTC announced its "Red Flag" education campaign "to assist media outlets voluntarily to screen out weight-loss product ads containing claims that are too good to be true" (Cleland and Mack 2003). The FTC's primary goal is to weed out false advertisements from those that promise realistic weight-loss products. The weight-loss industry earns 30 billion dollars in its products and services. Thus, there exists a huge incentive to come up with products that appeal to the consumer—especially those that are supposedly quicker, easier, and more effective than the competition.
The problem is that what many of these companies claim is simply not true. The proliferation of ads that offer false promises have "proceeded in the face of, and in spite of, an unprecedented level of FTC enforcement activity, including the filing of more than 80 cases during the last decade" (Cleland et al. 2002: 2). This poses a huge problem in terms of both ethical advertising and, more importantly, public health. The existence of "miracle drugs" gives people hope that they can shed the necessary pounds to get to a healthy weight. However, when these drugs fail to work, people are left with hopelessness and may give up on weight loss entirely.
Government interventions of any kind in the commercial sector of society raise questions and debates regarding laissez-faire, the notion of a free economy, and the free market. However, in this case, because censorship is also being instituted to some degree, some challenge that their First Amendment rights are being violated as well. In early 2005, a group called the Alliance for American Advertising—consisting of the American Advertising Federation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertising and the Grocery Manufacturers Association—was created in order to persuade legislators not to introduce bills that would restrict food ads targeted to children (Anon.
2005). Moreover, networks, advertisers, ad agencies, and their trade associations vigorously opposed the FTC proposals, "claiming that the FTC had no authority to ban truthful advertising for lawful products" (Sommer
See also Celebrities; Children; Diet Pills; Obesity
Epidemic; Smoking; Spurlock
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