Marketing that's hard to swallow

Marketing that's hard to swallow

CHICAGO — It was a big week for America's favorite junk foods.

First, Mondelez International — formerly known as Kraft Foods — announced that beginning in 2014, it will be the official sponsor of both the men's and women's U.S. national soccer teams. The company will sell signature snacks such as Oreo and Chips Ahoy cookies, Ritz crackers, Trident gum and other candies under the fast-growing sport's halo of healthiness.

Then from McDonald's came the announcement that for two weeks in November, it will give away 20 million books featuring storylines pushing healthy nutritional messages with Happy Meals.

These moves to use healthy activities or literacy and nutritional awareness as a means of selling their salty-sugary-fatty products is questionable enough.

But to prey on the good intentions of uninformed parents is even worse.

First, here's a tidbit from Sally Kuzemchak, a registered dietician and mother of two young children who has made it her mission to get rid of the junk that shows up on the sidelines of kids' sports under the auspices of providing "fun snacks." From her "Soccer Snacktivism Handbook," a guide for parents who want to change the juice and cookies habit at extracurricular activities:

"Kids burn off far fewer calories in team sports than we think. According to a recent study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, the average 8-year-old burns only 150 calories in an hour of sports — but the typical after-game snack has 300-500 calories."

According to a New York Times story analyzing the announcement, "Mondelez pitches its products primarily to mothers, including the well-chronicled soccer moms" — moms who you can bet probably have little idea that the nutritional damage of their well-meaning sideline treats far eclipse their child's physical exertion on the field.

And then there's McDonald's with its attempt to disguise marketing as a healthy literacy initiative.

Jesse Bragg, press secretary for Corporate Accountability International, a corporate abuse watchdog group, told ABC News that the McDonald's campaign is "clearly about reinforcing brand loyalty among kids."

That charge stands up once you look beyond the headlines about the physical books the fast food giant will be distributing. The ad agency-created "books" are not literature as much as they are a tease to get kids onto the McPlay and McDonald's Happy Meal apps, as well as on McDonald's game websites.

For parents who try their best to reinforce the tenets of healthy nutrition in their families, it feels like keeping kids away from the long tentacles of junk food marketers amounts to a high-stakes game of whack-a-mole. Once one venue finally gets healthier, another gets less so.

Schools — with their new rules against stocking vending machines full of junk and a push toward better nutrition in prepared meals — are becoming a place where nutrition is both preached and increasingly practiced.

And though parents control what food comes into their homes, the constant food marketing on kid-centric TV presents a major challenge. Even sports broadcasts are getting overrun with junk-food messages because the international brands keep developing new tactics for wrapping children's indulgences in the positive glow of wholesome activities.

A study of athlete endorsements in food marketing, to be published in November's issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that of 512 brands endorsed by 100 different athletes, 24 percent were for food and beverages.

"Seventy-nine percent of the 62 food products in athlete-endorsed advertisements were energy-dense and nutrient-poor, and 93.4 percent of the 46 advertised beverages had 100 percent of calories from added sugar," the authors found. "Adolescents saw the most television commercials that featured athlete endorsements of food."

The deck is stacked against parents trying to instill lifelong good eating habits in their kids. It's even more lopsided against those who may not realize they and their children are highly coveted demographic targets for junk food marketing.

Parents beware: Junk-food marketers count on your ignorance to push waistline-busting snacks on your kids. Don't let them pull any "healthy" wool over your eyes.

Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/estherjcepeda.

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