The first two panels at Tuesday’s FTC workshop Sizing Up: Food Marketing and Childhood Obesity considered first what evidence there is regarding the possible ill effects of food marketing on children and then, what, if anything, regulators might be able to do about it.
The first panel, “New Research on Food Marketing to Children” presented findings alleging that food marketing to children does indeed increase the consumption of unhealthy food and has a statistically significant link to childhood obesity. (See here for one source of more information.) Researchers said they were most surprised by how much food advertising affected all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, age, or socio-economic class, although it does affect some groups to a greater extent.
One of the new concerns for the panelists is the alleged reach of what was labeled “Marketing 2.1.” According to the presenters, the aims of this emerging marketing practice is to surround children with an atmosphere of pervasive product placement in everything from social media to video games and rides in addition to classic television and print advertisements. This form of marketing, they claimed, is also tapping into neurological research to project desire for a product directly into a consumer’s subconscious that would circumvent factors such as education and general healthy eating habits that increase consumers’ resistance to food product placement.
A second panel, “Advertising to Children and the First Amendment,” then considered what, if any, restrictions might be placed on food advertising to children, if, in fact, it does contribute to childhood obesity.
One of the first hurdles that regulations must pass is the Central Hudson four-prong test that determines whether restrictions violate the First Amendment by impermissibly burdening commercial speech. Passing this test is no easy task. While the First Amendment panelists disagreed on almost everything, they did agree that the United States Supreme Court has steadily increased protection for commercial speech over the last 15 years, and that the status of commercial speech aimed at children is unclear. Panelists disagreed sharply over whether children even need protection from commercial speech. One panelist argued that children have the built-in protection factor of parents and guardians who should not be giving into the “nag” factor. Other panelists argued that the research is showing that food marketing is specifically geared to override a reasonable person’s rational decision-making process, which undermines the theory that reasonable people are able to rationally filter commercial speech without intrusive government protection.
Of course, there are no such First Amendment worries with respect to voluntary guidelines, which was another approach discussed at the conference.