Head Start on Marketing Restrictions

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

On August 6, 2007, Associated Press writer Lindsey Tanner released an article, “Marketing Tricks Tot’s Taste Buds,” detailing how Dr. Tom Robinson
‘s August 2007 new study concluded that marketing campaigns can alter a child’s perception of taste and convince them that the name brand is more desirable. A majority of the study’s 63 Head Start participants, ages 3 to 5, preferred the taste of McDonald’s food to unmarked fast- food in 4 out of 5 comparisons. The catch: both the unmarked and branded food samples came from the local McDonald’s. There was no difference between the food samples provided, yet toddlers chose the branded food 55%-77% of the time.

This study has raised concerns that multinational food corporations may be brainwashing America’s youth into unhealthy eating habits, dooming them to a lifetime of obesity and early diabetes or heart failure. But before mothers rush out to demand that the government protect their children from unwanted, predatory media campaigns, they might want to look at the racial makeup of the children studied.

Dr. Robinson’s 63-person sample consisted of 87% non-whites and 38% Spanish-speaking or bilingual toddlers. This non-representative sample is likely to exaggerate the effects of fast-food media advertising because it almost exclusively focuses on those children most likely to have poor dietary standards and a higher exposure to fast food advertisements. Dr. Robinson is affiliated with Stanford’s School of Medicine.

Previous studies have shown that race has a significant effect both on the amount of television viewed per week, as well as the degree of ad exposure. In their 2005 article, Vani Henderson and Bridget Kelly found that African-American prime-time shows contained 60% more junk food commercials than other prime-time shows. Similarly, Dr. Corliss Outley and Abdissa Taddesse surveyed the food advertisements on Black Entertainment Television (BET), Disney Channel, and Warner Brothers channels in 2005 and found that 63.3% of food commercials aired on BET, and that fast-food advertisements “aired more often on BET compared with the other 2 stations.” They also concluded that their “study supports previous findings that suggest African-American television shows have a disproportionate number of unhealthy food images and may influence… vulnerable African-American children.”

Dr. Robinson’s sample is also non-representative of both California’s and America’s demographic composition. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, California had a 33% nonwhite population in 2005. Similarly, the United States had a 19.8% nonwhite population in 2005. This highlights a 54% disparity between Dr. Robinson’s sample and the American population, yet Lindsey Tanner notes that Dr. Robinson still “believes the [study] results would be similar for children from wealthier families.”

Dr. Robinson’s assertions about study’s generalizability contradict a considerable body of evidence which demonstrates that low-income families are more likely to have poorer health care and inadequate nutritional training. Simply put, socio-economic status is not a neutral variable. Head Start considers nutritional and health-related education an integral part of its mission to low-income communities, and the Department of Health and Human Services website notes that “An essential part of Head Start is…promoting safe and healthy practices within the entire family unit.” Without these programs, many poor families would be at a loss.

Dr. Robinson’s none-so-subtle policy suggestions also raise concern over his scientific impartiality. His study, published in the August 2007 edition of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine¸ concludes that “[its] findings also add evidence to support recommendations to regulate or ban advertising or marketing of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and beverages, or all marketing, that is directed to young children….” because “advertising to young children is inherently unfair…” Lindsey Tanner’s article highlights how child development activist Diane Levin and an American Academy of Pediatrics author, Dr. Victor Strasburger, have already utilized the study to campaign for greater limits of marketing to children. Of course, nobody seems to mention that the Children’s Television Act of 1990 already restricts children’s programming commercial time to 12 minutes/hour on weekdays, and 10.5 minutes/hour on weekends. Additional restrictions would likely have to reach past television and comprehensively micromanage posters, radio, and other media.

Bethany Stotts
is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.