Should Scooby Doo be allowed to advertise to children?
Michele Simon says no.
Simon is a food activist with Eat Drink Politics in Oakland, California.
And she has a bone to pick with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
Simon says that the Center is too friendly with major food corporations like Kellogg, the maker of Scooby Doo.
The Center’s Margo Wootan last week sent out an email urging consumers to “please thank Kellogg for launching new children’s cereal with less sugar.”
“In a positive new development, Kellogg announced the launch of Scooby Doo cereal, a new children’s cereal made with whole grains and containing just 6 grams of sugar per serving,” Wootan wrote. “It is encouraging to see Kellogg develop and market a cereal for kids that contains significantly less sugar than most other kid-targeted cereals currently on the market.”
Simon says it’s wrong to market to children no matter how much sugar is in the cereal.
“From an ethical and legal standpoint, it is immoral to market to children, because children do not understand advertising,” Simon told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week.
“The First Amendment does not protect deceptive advertising.”
“If a child cannot understand they are being marketed to, if the child doesn’t understand persuasive intent, which is a lynchpin of advertising, that makes that advertising inherently deceptive. It’s an accepted legal concept by many legal scholars.”
“It does not matter what you are marketing to a child. Any kind of marketing to a child is inherently deceptive, whether it is a Big Mac or cereal. That’s the legal reason why it’s wrong.”
Marion Nestle, a professor at the Department of Nutrition at NYU, had some questions about the new Scooby Doo cereal.
“Will Kellogg put money behind this cereal and market it with the millions it spends to market Froot Loops?” Nestle asked. “Will it reduce the sugars in its other cereals? Will other cereal companies do the same?”
“Or will Scooby Doo suffer the fate of Post’s no-added-sugar and otherwise unsweetened Alpha Bits introduced in around 2005?”
Simon also has strategic differences with CSPI.
“CSPI says that they have decided that they must now work with the food industry,” Simon said. “They have been working for decades trying to get changes made in Washington, D.C. The politics have been very difficult. And so they haven’t gotten very far.”
“Since they have not gotten very far in the political arena, they have decided that the way to go is to get the food industry to change its ways. I’m all for that. But they have decided the way to do that is to ask them nicely to change their ways. This I disagree with.”
“It’s not their only strategy. They also have a litigation arm. They are suing food companies to make them change their ways. But the fact that they have adopted this strategy of thanking industry and working with industry to try and make changes — there is a relationship developing.”
“Margo says that she likes Mars. And they are doing a good job at Mars. It’s a problem. It’s playing right into the industry’s hands. Can you imagine the celebration that went on at Kellogg’s after CSPI decided to give it all of this free public relations? This isn’t the right strategy.”
“They got the industry to compromise on menu labelling. They have adopted this strategy of cooperating with industry. If I thought it was effective, I wouldn’t be opposed to it. But I don’t see any positive results coming from it.”
Simon will be debating Wootan at a conference on childhood obesity in Long Beach in June.
What’s the title of the panel?
“It’s a generic title, but I want it to be — Should Scooby Doo be Marketing to Children?,” Simon says.
“On my side will be Susan Linn. She is with the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. On the other side with Margo will be David Just at Cornell. He has written about how ‘smart cafeterias can fight childhood obesity.’”
“CSPI is one of these inside the beltway groups that operate in a top down manner. That can undermine work at the grassroots level. They don’t care that much about what is going on at the state or local level, except as to how it will hinder or further their federal campaigns. That’s why they are willing to compromise on issues like pre-emption on menu labelling, which basically wiped out all local state level laws.”
How did that happen?
“The enabling law was in the health care bill,” Simon says. “The regulations are not final.”
“The states wanted to pass their own laws. When the states stepped up, the food industry was ready to come to the table. They didn’t want to be subject to different state laws. The restaurant industry struck a deal with CSPI to say okay, we’ll agree to calorie postings. Nothing else, just calories.”
“In return, they say — we want pre-emption — no state can pass a law greater than this. And CSPI said — great, we agree. Let’s sneak that into the health care bill and have no debate on it. And that is what they did.”
“So, now the regulations are with the Obama administration. And they have been held up there for political reasons. And here we are some three years later with no law on the books at the federal level. And states aren’t going anywhere, because of the federal action.”
Has there been friction between you and CSPI?
“Well, I have heard Margo say — well, I’m not like these anti-commercialism people. And this goes back to Gary Ruskin and Commercial Alert. It was aimed at Gary and at Susan Linn.”
“Other than that, I don’t think there has been a public debate about it. I’ve written why we have to stop marketing to children — period. And she sends out her — let’s thank Kelloggs — email. This will be the first public debate of this kind.”
We reached out to CSPI’s president, Michael Jacobson, for a response.
“I think it is most productive to talk to all people — academics, government and industry officials, and others,” Jacobson said. “We’ve had productive discussions with industry, sometimes leading to changes in their marketing practices. In other cases, CSPI has sued, or threatened to sue, companies, and that often led to real progress.”
“For instance, our settlement with Kellogg about marketing to children led to the first binding agreement not to advertise foods with more than specified amounts of trans fat, salt, and sugar.”
What about Wootan’s e-mail praising Kellogg’s Scooby Doo cereal?
“We have no problem praising companies — including big ones — for marketing healthier products — and criticizing companies that market junk,” Jacobson said. “Scooby Doo is more healthful than most other child-oriented cereals; it contains modest levels of salt and sugar, whole grains, and no dyes.”
What about Simon’s claim that marketing to children is inherently deceptive and we shouldn’t be praising Kellogg for this?
“Maybe Michele Simon’s criticisms will force Kellogg and other companies to shut down and go away, but as long as big companies are around, we believe that improvements in their products and policies deserve encouragement,” Jacobson said.
What about Wootan giving Mars candy company an A for good marketing practices?
“Our goal is to stop them from marketing junk foods to children,” Jacobson said. “Mars adopted a policy of not advertising to children at all. I don’t know what Michele Simon would say about Mars, but we believe that a candy company that does not advertise to kids surely deserves praise.”
As for menu labeling and pre-emption, Jacobson said that “as everyone who was involved in efforts to win passage of menu labeling knew, the price for opposing state preemption on menu labeling was to have no national law at all.”
“We thought it was vitally important to have one strong national law to cover a national industry,” Jacobson said.
[For the complete Interview with Michele Simon, see 27 Corporate Crime Reporter 9(13), March 4, 2013, print edition only.]