Business and Operations
Fresh Trends: October 2009
By Michelle Brisebois
By Michelle Brisebois
For years it’s been clear that obesity is a rampant problem for
Canadians. Many rationalized it as a logical symptom related to an
aging population struggling to cope with slower metabolisms. That was
until they started looking at kids.
| Getting to a parent’s pocketbook through their child’s stomach is an approach under scrutiny.|
With obesity rates skyrocketing, food producers are under increased scrutiny for marketing to children – and government regulation could be on the way.
For years it’s been clear that obesity is a rampant problem for Canadians. Many rationalized it as a logical symptom related to an aging population struggling to cope with slower metabolisms. That was until they started looking at kids.
By 2004, 26 per cent of Canadian children and adolescents aged two to 17 were overweight or obese; eight per cent were deemed obese. Most sobering was the fact that Canada’s childhood obesity rate ranks among the highest in the world: fifth among 34 developed countries.
Parents, the medical community and government regulators searched for a place to lay blame, and they laid it at the door of large food manufacturers. Into the paddy wagon went such iconic characters as Capt. Crunch and Count Chocula. And yes, even Cookie Monster turned state’s evidence and claimed to forsake his beloved cookies in favour of vegetables. Suddenly, it became socially unacceptable to create food brands, ad campaigns and appealing characters designed to entice children to consume a product deemed to be “junk food.”
While this new diligence is admirable, it drags the baked goods sector into the fray as well. Where do we draw the line? Are we still allowed to give a child a sample?
In 2008, Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) followed the lead of similar groups in the U.K. and U.S. by announcing that a number of retailers and manufacturers – including Kraft, McDonald’s, Kellogg and Nestle – had committed to guidelines restricting how their products can be promoted to kids. This announcement followed the April 2007 launch of Canada’s Children’s Advertising Initiative (CAI), in which 16 food and drink manufacturers agreed to stop advertising directly to children less than 12 years of age unless it was a product that promoted healthy dieting and lifestyle choices.
According to the ASC, “Of the 16 participating companies, eight did not direct any advertising to children under 12. The remaining eight all exceeded the CAI’s baseline requirement by committing that 100 per cent of their advertising directed to children under 12 would be for products that met the CAI’s nutrition standards, rather than the minimum 50 per cent required for participation. [Also], while the CAI required that products meet at least one of the CAI’s nutrition standards, all advertised products met at least two.”
Participants reviewed in the report include: Cadbury Adams Canada Inc.; Campbell Co. of Canada; Coca-Cola Ltd.; General Mills Canada Corp.; Hershey Canada Inc.; Janes Family Foods Ltd.; Kellogg Canada Inc.; Kraft Canada Inc.; Mars Canada Inc.; McCain Foods (Canada); McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd.; Nestlé Canada Inc.; Parmalat Canada; PepsiCo Canada ULC; Unilever Canada Inc., and Weston Bakeries Ltd.
By taking the initiative to self-regulate their marketing activities to children, these companies are not only addressing criticism head on; they’re ensuring they have a hand in creating their own destiny. Avoiding the issue could have led to government-mandated advertising standards less palatable to the companies involved.
To play devil’s advocate, it could be argued that few children under the age of 12 are taking their allowance to the grocery store to purchase sweetened cereals and junk foods. It’s most likely that the advertising makes the kids ask for it and in turn puts pressure on parents to purchase it for them. Parents are the final gatekeepers.
The numbers don’t necessarily indicate that curtailing ad campaigns has an effect on childhood obesity. Quebec, the only province to impose a ban on children’s advertising, has a higher childhood obesity rate than Alberta. (The rates in Alberta [22 per cent] and Quebec [23 per cent] are below the national average.) This suggests that factors apart from advertising, such as physical activity rates, influence the incidence of childhood obesity more significantly.
In time, society may begin to address all of the underlying causes by implementing programs to educate parents and provide a better infrastructure for physical activity. Until then, food manufacturers have risen to the occasion by ceasing to advertise to minors. Doing this may eventually force society to look elsewhere for scapegoats.
The advertising of yesteryear worked well because kids influenced their parents to make the purchase. Parents now want and need products with great taste and nutritional value. They want to treat their kids yet make it count for something nutritionally, too, and that’s where the bakery industry can help.
Can we still offer samples of baked goods to kids as a marketing tactic? Yes, but we need to be aware that getting to a parent’s pocketbook through their child’s stomach is an approach under scrutiny. Local bakeries have the advantage of having personal relationships with their customers and so you and your teams can speak directly about the ingredients in your baked goods.
In-store signage designed to promote your quality ingredients would also help. Now is the time to focus on smaller portions, fibre, fruit and maybe some savoury items. In-store workshops in which parents and kids can bake some muffins together will go a long way toward making sweet treats what they should be – a wonderful childhood memory connected to joyous family events. If we take the high road here, just maybe we can spring Cookie Monster out of the Big House.
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries.