Are Advertisements Making Kids Fat?

A new study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reports that kids are getting too many calories from “junk” foods, like sugary drinks, pizza, and whole milk. And right on cue, leading food cop and Yale professor Kelly Brownell pointed the finger at one of his usual targets: advertisements. “Marketing is undermining parental authority and making it very hard for parents to raise healthy children,” he lamented.

We don’t always have love for marketers (see: Starbucks and corn sugar), but the idea that marketing is “undermining” parents seems a bit silly. It’s analogous to those in San Francisco who claim that toys in kids’ meals are taking away parents’ ability to choose what their kids should eat.

It’s obvious that marketing has influence over kids and adults alike. But is it making children fat? Nope. The White House’s childhood obesity task force reported in May that “a causal link between marketing and increasing childhood obesity rates has yet to be firmly established.” It may be too much TV that’s behind overweight kids—not too many ads.

And in fact, marketing is a two-edged sword. Cornell University researchers tested last year whether the same tactics would get kids to eat vegetables. And guess what? They found that calling carrots “x-ray vision carrots” increased consumption 62 percent among preschoolers. Increased consumption continued even into the following day.

It’s not that we need bans on marketing to kids. (They tried that in Sweden and it didn’t work.) We just need to let competition work its magic. “Big Produce” is figuring out that successful tactics need not be monopolized by chip and cookie companies. Perhaps Big Brother Brownell will see his food cop fantasies debunked by none other than baby carrots.

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