Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Blame it on Scooby

Scooby Doo, Dora, and Shrek make kids fat. At least that is what the evidence suggests according to a recent study at Yale (www.philly.com, How Scooby Doo Makes Kids Fat, 7/1/10). Kids pay attention to marketing. They want to eat the foods that the characters they love are endorsing. We know this. But, can we resist the luring temptress of Hollywood marketers influencing the choices we make for our children? The answer seems to be no.

Childhood diseases stemming from poor diet and lack of exercise are rising to epidemic proportions. In a recent Q&A, local doctor Chad Jumper (Creason, Naomie, The Sentinel, 7/4/10) reported seeing an alarming increase in childhood obesity. The YMCA's Healthy Family Home newsletter, along with many other health-focused organizations promote a simple message to combat this issue: eat healthier and be more active. Yet, we are losing the battle of the bulge as more unhealthy behaviors are now sprouting up in our children at an earlier age. Why? Blame it on Scooby. Or, so we'd like to.

The Yale study was published in the July issue of the Journal of Pediatrics and it showed that children reported that foods in packages endorsed by their favorite characters tasted better than the same foods in plain packaging. A similar study by the Sesame Street Workshop showed the same, wherein children were more likely to choose broccoli over a Hershey bar only when Elmo was placed on the vegetable. It was suggested in Super Size Me that Ronald McDonald has better brand recognition among children than Jesus. Really?

As parents, we are reeling against the power of the marketing punch of the food industry. We awkwardly try to convince our children that their home made lunch is just as cool as their best friends kid's meal, complete with a gender specific toy, and that it will benefit them in the long-term. While we stumble through the conversation, the food industry is gearing up to have a greater impact. The website www.extension.org reports that the Federal Trade Commission states that the food industry spent $1.6 billion on promoting their products to children under the age of 17 in 2006. Five percent of that spending was on advertising "healthy" eating through dairy products and fruit juice. Hooray. (None was spent on fruit and vegetable promotion). Much of that money is being spent on cross promotional efforts with movies, internet-based games, and other multi-media approaches to have a greater branding effect with our kids. Who knew Dora was this powerful?

Product recalls don't even slow this marketing freight train. Even after I learned that some of the Shrek products were pulled from Happy Meals, I caved to efficiency one busy afternoon and picked up a fast food lunch for my children. They beamed while wearing their new Shrek watches that were included. I'm not sure which was worse, the nutritional value of the lunch or the uncertainty over the manufacturing of the toy. Shrek wins.

These food industry folks are tough. But, in the words of Rocky Balboa, "it's not about how hard you can hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." We don't have the resources to combat the $1.6 billion in marketing that is being thrown toward our children. So, we have to withstand the onslaught of high-sugar, highly processed promotions, find small victories, and keep moving forward.

I recently visited a big-box store with my 5-year-old son. As he stepped out of the car, he quickly spotted that the traditionally white parking lines had been repainted with a photo of a seductive smores treat. "Daddy, can we get one of those inside?" He said with a grin. Do we really have a chance in this battle?

I believe we do. And it's not blaming Scooby, Dora, or Shrek for our weight-induced national health crisis. And it's not in waiting for first lady Michelle Obama to resolve the issue (though she is to be commended for trying). It's in personal accountability for our own health choices. It's in creating a culture within our homes where food is viewed as energy-giving fuel for our bodies that allow us to work outdoors, play, and be active. It's in modeling healthy choices for our children. It's in de-cluttering our schedules to allow for less visits to a drive-thru and more opportunities to prepare meals together. It's in enjoying the sweets of life, but in moderation and on occasion. It's in being responsible for our own health and caring for the futures of our children.

But, be careful - Scooby is coming for you!