Let’s begin with the material targeted at parents. Take a look at this horrific
“we care about your children’s health” list “to get children to drink milk”:
1. Add NESTLÉ® NESQUIK® chocolate or strawberry syrup or powder.
2. Drop some food coloring or marshmallows into the drinking glass.
3. Let me make my own instant pudding.
4. Serve milk ice-cold with a fresh batch of NESTLÉ® TOLL HOUSE® cookies.
5. Put a star on the calendar for every glass I drink.
6. See who can make the best milk mustache.
7. Buy some crazy straws.
8. Make me a bowl of STOUFFER’S® Macaroni & Cheese for an afternoon snack.
9. Let me pick out my own special milk glass the next time we go to the store.
10. Let’s make NESTLÉ® NESQUIK® Chocolate Igloos!
What, no “put a Crunch bar in my lunchbox!”?
Over half of these
ideas marketing tactics involve the consumption of snack foods, most of which are calorically empty and consist entirely of sugar. In the case of “strawberry syrup”, you are looking at a combination of water, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, and two artificial dyes. But don’t worry — it has a “no-drip” cap. Oh, and it’s also fortified with calcium. You see, in the world of Big Food, the addition of calcium to any laboratory-made horror automatically makes it “wholesome”.
Tip number two goes straight to the source and flat out recommends parents add drops of artificial dyes (which, despite serious health concerns, the FDA still gives a solid green light to) to a glass of “white” milk.
And, yet, despite ten different chances to say it, not a single mention of something as simple as blending frozen banana slices, some milk, and a tablespoon of a nut or seed butter (which, by the way, works just as wonderfully with dairy alternatives). Alas, there is an easy explanation for that: there are no Nestlé bananas or nut butter products. In a list created solely for marketing purposes, healthful advice takes a backseat.
Let’s now click over to the children’s area of the website, where we are greeted with the following four choices:
- Be Healthy
- Have Some Fun
- Play Games
- Get Downloads
Interestingly, the “Be Healthy” portion exclusively deals with physical activity. There is no mention of health from a nutrition standpoint, very likely because it would entirely contradict what appears on the parents’ section of the website. So, really, this section should be called “Get Active”.
It is the “Play Games” portion that is most troubling, however, especially in light of Nestlé USA’s Pledge in Support of the Enhanced Core Principles laid out in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative by the Better Business Bureau. The initiative launched in 2006 as a way for food companies to set self-imposed rules about what sort of nutrition criteria would make a product okay to advertise to children under the age of 12. As you might imagine, food companies made it conveniently easy for fat-free, cholesterol-free, low-sodium, low-fiber, high-sugar foods to appear innocuous.
Food companies essentially wrote their own rule book, which of course can be manipulated into a wonderful PR opportunity. Take a look at this statement, which appears in page 3 of that document (note: the Better Business Bureau website lists Nestle’s 2010 pledge, which we assume has not been altered, as there is no 2011 update):
“Nestlé USA will not target advertising to children under 6, regardless of the product’s nutritional profile.”
Really? Are online games that star your product’s kid-friendly “mascot” not a form of advertising? All the games on the Nesquik website “star” Quicky the Nesquick Bunny (oh yes, he has a name!) and are of extreme ease (most consist of simply using the spacebar and arrow keys on a keyboard); certainly playable by children under the age of 6. Furthermore, nowhere on the website is there a statement that the kids’ area of the website is meant for children 6 or older.
And so, again, we come to see that industry self-regulation has absolutely no teeth, whether it involves food labeling and health claims or advertising to children. “Adver-gaming”, which aptly describes what is found in the “Play Games” section of the Nesquik kids’ website, is particularly powerful. As Michele Simon — public health lawyer and author of Appetite for Profit: How The Food Industry Undermines Health and How To Fight Back — told me:
“Adver-gaming may be the most insidious form of marketing to kids. Young children are especially vulnerable. Under the guise of fun, companies can inculcate young children’s minds with their unhealthy brands, forming deep emotional ties that can last a lifetime.”
Adver-gaming is marketing, pure and simple. The Federal Trade Commission is currently seeking input on proposed voluntary practices for marketing food to children. My input? If we truly want to tackle the marketing of unhealthy products to children, we must have mandatory guidelines in place set by a governing body that would prohibit food companies from hosting games on their websites, regardless of a product’s nutritional profile. There are already hundreds of non-branded websites that offer free computer games to kids of all ages.
“Personal responsibility” and “consumer choice” are non-existent unless the playing field is evened out and industry is no longer given free reign to make up their own rules.