Two years after yet another industry pledge to eliminate junk-food advertising to kids under 12, researchers at Cal-Davis have found that kids’ television programming is still disproportionately supported by advertising for foods high in fat, sugar, and calories , and low in any real nutritional value. In response, Senators Jim Moran (Va.) and Bill Pascrell (N.J.) have introduced the Healthy Kids Act , which proposes “specifying categories of foods and beverages for or about which any advertisement, promotion, or marketing directed at children and youth shall be an abusive, unfair, or deceptive act” and limiting advertising for certain other foods and beverages-presumably the slightly less objectionable ones-to two minutes an hour on weekends, three on weekdays. The FCC would do the limiting, the FTC the defining, and yet another agency-the Health and Human Services Department-might set additional guidelines based on the “emotional vulnerability” of kids and their limited skill at distinguishing ad content.
The bill is bound to be popular among voters-one in three of whom believes that all junk food advertising, not just ads targeting kids, should be regulated in some way. It’s just as likely to be unpopular in the industry, which is already citing free-speech concerns and promising to do better next time . But if we truly want kids to consume less junk, then regulating its advertising is good policy. Fourof the top 10 advertising spenders on television are public companies that sell (among other things) junk food of one kind or another, with a duty to their shareholders to sell as much of that food as they possibly can. Accepting limits on advertising to kids might, perversely, be good business. Junk-food producers would be freed to push their wares within certain constraints, leaving the hypocrisy to those more skilled at not letting the left hand know what the right is doing.
Because while these three federal agencies work to limit the promotion of junk food, a fourth agency-the Department of Agriculture-will continue to work tirelessly to make the junk food itself both cheap and plentiful. In September, Michael Pollan noted in an editorial in the NYT that, with the proposed health care bill, the federal government is ” putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup .” The Healthy Kids Act would have that same government encouraging the production of foods and beverages containing high-fructose corn syrup, but discouraging their consumption. It seems cynical to call that progress, but I guess we’ll have to take what we can get.