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Sweet Lies

| Lewis Akenji

The WHO faced the power of big advertisers last year when the results of a research it published showed the negative effects on children of some food industry giants’ products. The report showed the adverse effect of heavy marketing of energy-dense foods and fast-food outlets; the adverse effect of high intake of energy-dense, low-nutrient foods; the adverse effect of high intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.

It confirmed what most
previous research has shown, but which companies affected have been paying high
to advertise the contrary to consumers. The WHO reported that “high consumption
of added sugars contributes significantly to the incidence of dental caries and
obesity” with a recommendation from the researchers “that added sugars should
form no more than 6–10% of total dietary intake.”

Added sugars (excluding natural sugars in milk and
fruit) are derived from products such as soft drinks and confectionery. Nestle,
Coca-cola and other companies producing energy-dense, low-nutrient foods typical
present them as healthy, for fit lifestyles and to be consumed regularly. Such
associations were discredited when experts of the WHO research cautioned that
people should “eat and drink food and drinks containing sugar sparingly and not
between meals.” Consumption of foods with these sugars have been related to
chronic conditions such as obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and
diet-related cancers. A study in Rio de Janeiro identified over-consumption of
coca-cola drinks (over food) as a cause of malnutrition and vitamin deficiency
in children aged 6 – 14.

The International Life Science Institute (co-founded
in 1978 by food companies Heinz, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, General Foods, Kraft and
Procter & Gamble – and until 1991 directed by the vice-president of
Coca-Cola) in an earlier publication on the health effects of sugar consumption
had stated that “intake of sugars is inversely associated with the prevalence of
obesity” and commented on the need to research the positive role of glucose in
“facilitating mental processes.” Knowing that people trust publicly-funded
academics and NGOs more than politicians or industry, the food and sugar
industries have set up organisations whose job it is to fund research, put out
positive messages to the media, and lobby for policies favourable to their
interests. Afraid of the impact of the WHO recommendation on sales of added
sugar products, the Sugar Association (whose members again include Coca-Cola,
Pepsi and General Foods) went on a lobby spree, writing letters to the WHO and
threatening to make the US Congress to withdraw $406m of WHO funding.

Child Victims

Yet, most advertisements of these foods target
children, who understand very little of the facts behind them and are seduced by
professionally mastered branding processes that present the products as
authentic and cool to associate with. With increasing inter-industry
competition, a multitude of aggressive marketing techniques have developed, all
aimed at creating large dedicated consumer followings. Advertisers are not only
on TV and billboards anymore; they’re in schools, at home, in science
institutes, in cultures, basically every place where there is a wallet. Children
are the most susceptible, reason why worldwide there’s growing pressure on the
urgent need to restrict corporate encroachment and to protect especially
children from being bought into brand addicts. To date, over 28,000 people have
sent letters to JK Rowling, author of the internationally best-selling
children’s book series Harry Potter asking her to withdraw from an advertising
deal with Coca-Cola, and “Save Harry from the clutches of Coca-Cola”. The
campaign Save Harry! is coordinated by the US Center for Science in the Public

According to recent reports, for every $1 spent by
the WHO on trying to improve the nutrition of the world’s population, $500 is
spent by the food industry on promoting processed foods. By 2001, the world
food-industry advertising budget was estimated at $40 billion, a figure greater
than the Gross Domestic Product of 70% of the world’s nations. A survey of
children’s television in 13 industrialised countries (Australia, Austria,
Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway,
Sweden, the UK and the US) has found that food advertising accounts for almost
half of all the advertising shown during children’s TV viewing times. Among
others, the survey showed that:
• Confectionery, pre-sweetened breakfast
cereals and fast-food restaurants account for more than half of all food
advertisements on children’s TV;
• Savoury snacks, high-sugar dairy
products, ready-prepared foods, soft drinks, cakes, biscuits and desserts are
also commonly advertised in most countries;
• Advertisements for
healthier foods such as fruit and vegetables are very rare, even non-existent in
eight of the countries surveyed;
• About three quarters of the foods
advertised to children are ones that health experts recommend they should eat
• It identified the fast-food restaurant McDonald’s as
the “most prolific advertiser” overall.

In fact, consider this letter published in an
international magazine, written by a reader fed up with this prolification:

“I was appalled today. We went to watch the ceremony for turning on our
town’s Christmas lights, and were shocked to find that the mayor’s “special
guest” was one Mr Ronald MacDonald. The stripey-trousered red-haired clown got a
full 3 minutes of mic time that included terrifying moments, like when he led
the crowd (mostly small children with their parents) in six chants of “I’m
lovin’ it!” Towards the end of his corporate rally, he asked: “Who wants an
early Christmas present?” He then handed away two-for-one Happy Meal
Martin Coote, Maidstone, United Kingdom.

More techniques used to target

• Advertise during children’s TV and cinema; sponsor
children’s TV; link up with popular children’s films (Disney); use celebrities,
e.g. Britney Spears drinks Pepsi.
• Offer free movie tickets, offer
vouchers as a ‘reward’ to children for achievement in school.
• Colonize
schools. Coke and Pepsi have aggressively sought exclusive contracts with local
school systems allowing them to supply soda machines and products. In
Hillsborough County, in the US, for example, In 2001 Coke had contracts of up to
eight more years in 17 of the country’s 19 high schools. Pepsi Cola offered the
school district a 10-year deal estimated to be worth $43 million in exchange for
exclusive rights.
• Offer collectable toys; the more one consumes, the
more toys he or she can collect. McDonald’s acknowledges (in a press advert, The
Telegraph, UK 2003) that marketing techniques, such as free toys given away with
McDonald’s meals, may be more influential on children’s choices than the quality
of the food.
• Include games and offers on websites, simple
point-and-click computer games, cartoons, and free graphics or animations
available to download. These often repeat brand images, and involve the icon of
the company which imprints on children’s minds after repeated
• Sponsor children’s football clubs, sporting and pop music
events. During such events the logo and icons of the advertiser occupy the most
conspicuous spots, such that the atmosphere or success of the even is mentally
associated with the imposing adverts.
• Compromise nutritive quality to
make the food cheap and available as widely as possible – vending machines in
school corridors and streets, food stands;
• Adapt to (local) cultures.
In Zambia aggressive advertising caused mothers to give their babies soft drinks
instead of food. A wave of debilitating malnutrition, known as ‘Fanta Baby’
spread throughout the country. The adverts in question were eventually banned.

A notorious case study of how adamant a company can
be against public outcry is reflected in the Baby Milk Action. Nestlé has
repeatedly come under heat for violating international advertisement codes,
lying about scientific research in order to promote its products, and inducing
mothers through dubious means into proven unhealthy diets for their babies. The
World Health Organisation estimates that 1.5 million babies die every year as a
result of not being breastfed and Nestle has been warned by the Advertising
Standards Authority (ASA). Yet, according to Mike Aaronson, Director General of
Save the Children (UK), Nestlé continues to promote artificial feeding in ways
that undermine breastfeeding, and its baby food marketing puts profits before
health. Baby Milk Action coordinates the 18 country international Nestle
boycott, focusing on Nestle because it controls about 40% of the world market in
baby milks and uses its influence to undermine controls on marketing activities.
Monitoring shows Nestle to be the largest single source of marketing code
violations worldwide. The Boycott is supported in the UK by over 100 church,
health and consumer groups, over 90 businesses, 80 student unions, 17 local
authorities, 12 trade unions, 74 politicians and political parties and many

Enough is enough!
In most
countries, the food industry continues to have unfettered access to children.
However, several countries recognise that food marketing should be controlled,
some form of child protection is needed, and have introduced statutory
regulation, or made government recommendations for strengthened voluntary
controls. These are just some of the campaigns in recent years, demonstrating
the groundswell of popular support that could be harnessed by coordinated action
to improve children’s diets and health.

In schools…
Several school
districts have made headlines by ousting advertising and sales of fatty and
sugary foods from school vending machines or canteens.
• Schools are
ad-free zones in Japan. There are no commercial promotions in schools. In public
schools, as the Japanese Offspring Fund consumer group reports, ‘No ads or
coupons or commercial materials are distributed to teachers or kids or
• In New York City, school menus will soon provide low-fat and
low-salt foods. Sugary drinks in vending machines will be replaced by fruit
juice and water.
• San Francisco plans to ban junk food and soda in
schools starting with the 2003-2004 academic year. Sacramento and Buffalo City
are considering similar moves.
• Los Angeles school district, one of the
largest in America with more than 700,000 students, has banned junk food and
soda sales in its schools.
• In Seattle, a parents’ group called
Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools lobbied successfully to ban
advertising in the district’s schools. It is now aiming for state-wide
legislation in Washington State.

Statutory controls…
• The
Belgium Flemish region does not permit advertising five minutes before and after
programmes for children under 12.
• Denmark allows no advertising breaks
during children’s programmes and in 2000 implemented a voluntary ban on
advertising to children (overturned in 2002).
• Norway is seeking a ban
on advertisements before, during or after children’s programmes.
• With
some narrow exceptions for certain types of magazines, the Canadian province of
Quebec has for the past two decades prohibited all advertising directed at
children under the age of 13.
• Sweden does not permit advertising aimed
at children under 12, does not allow programmes to be interrupted by advertising
and does not permit advertising before or after children’s
• In Australia there is a ban on all advertising during
pre-school children’s programmes.
• In the Netherlands there are limits
on the volume of advertising during children’s programmes.
• In Finland,
McDonald’s cannot promote toys in its advertisements.
• In Denmark,
Finland and the Netherlands, characters or presenters from children’s programmes
cannot appear in advertisements.

This article first appeared in the magazine
Tudatos Vasarlo issue 2.

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