Fast-food marketing to kids is on the rise. One of the main methods fast-food companies use to target children is to include a toy giveaway with their burgers and fries. But some cities and states are recognizing the effect this is having on childhood obesity. Most recently, Senator Bill Avery, of Lincoln Nebraska introduced a measure that would prohibit toy giveaways in children's meals that don't meet certain nutrition requirements.
The measure, LB 126, would curb the inclusion of Shrek, Darth Vader and other popular icons in kid's meals that have more than 500 calories. In addition, the meals can't exceed 640 milligrams of sodium and have to include at least one cup of fruit or non-fried vegetables. It would also place limits on saturated fats, trans fats and sugar.
With 31 percent of Nebraska's children overweight or obese, curbing predatory marketing seems like a good idea. But there's a reason why food giants spent so much money trying to defeat these types of proposals -- this type of advertising works. Internal documents from McDonald's advertising executives note that "companies have found that kids are a lot more tempted by the toys than the food."
The Federal Trade Commission estimates that the top ten restaurants spent $360 million in 2006 on toys alone, selling more than 1.2 billion meals with toys to children under 12, or 20 percent of all child traffic. In other words, toys get kids to eat fast food.
It may ultimately be up to a parent to decide where and what their kids eat. But marketing influences behavior, and using cartoon characters and toys works to change food preferences, just as Joe Camel helped attract youngsters to cigarettes.
"This is not about limiting parental rights," Sen. Avery, the author of the bill, told Bloomberg News. "It's not about taking away kids' toys. It's about, for the first time, seriously addressing the epidemic of childhood obesity in the state of Nebraska." And doing this means preventing fast-food companies use toys to serve up unhealthy fare.
As the bill moves forward, it will continue to attract major opposition and well-funded lobbying by fast-food chains. But the health of our kids is more important. That's why it's critical to urge the Nebraska legislature to become the first state to pass this historic piece of legislation.