Zywicki in WSJ: SpongeBob's Last Stand

Attacking advertising as a method of dealing with childhood obesity is an approach that will fail, and not without a high cost to food producers, says Professor Todd Zywicki in an op-ed appearing in The Wall Street Journal.

"The underlying causes of weight gain in children are the same as in their parents—eating too much and exercising too little," says Zywicki. "And academic research confirms what we sense from personal experience: Kids eat what their parents eat. If you sit down at the dinner table with a two-liter of Coke, Jimmy won't ask for milk instead."

An interagency task force has proposed new "voluntary" guidelines on food marketing aimed at those under 17. But Zywicki points out that a substantial portion of the foods currently in the market place would not meet those guidelines. Prohibited foods are defined so broadly, he says, that the guidelines "would curtail advertising not only of Fruit Loops and soda but also of Cheerios and yogurt."

"It's also important to realize that while advertisements for new products can increase market demand—alerting consumers to an entirely new category of products—brand advertising primarily reallocates existing market share: The primary effect of Coke advertising is to steal customers from Pepsi, not to expand overall soft-drink consumption," Zywicki explains. "Brand advertising can make brand loyalty stronger and lead to higher product prices. Restricting advertising, therefore, could actually backfire if companies compete for market share by reducing prices on junk foods enjoyed by kids, instead of by spending money on advertising."

SpongeBob SquarePants' Last Stand, The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2012. By Todd Zywicki.

"Official data from the Center for Disease Control's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey show that children's weight gains in recent decades mirror their parents' growing waistlines. The problem is exacerbated when both parents work, leaving less time for home cooking, shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, and playing ball with the kids—but more money for eating out and ordering in (which tends to mean larger and more calorie-dense meals).

"Still, isn't food advertising at least partly to blame? The evidence for this is lacking.

"According to a 2007 study by the Federal Trade Commission, the exposure of youth to food advertising on television actually declined between 1977 and 2004, even as the rate of youth obesity soared. A 2004 report in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine noted that countries and regions that have banned food advertising on children's television—such as Sweden and Quebec—have childhood obesity rates no different from anywhere else.

"To be sure, the time American children spend away from watching the ads on SpongeBob SquarePants or Dora the Explorer isn't always spent outside playing soccer and hopscotch. Instead, it's commonly spent on sedentary activities such as videogames and computers. And that is indeed part of the problem. But limitations on advertising won't make them any thinner."

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