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Graff: First Amendment Doesn’t Apply to Junk Food Marketing to Kids

Psychological research consistently shows that adolescents are much more vulnerable than adults to advertising messages because the part of the brain that directs impulse control and maturity of judgment does not fully develop until adulthood. And these high-tech marketing tactics are specifically designed to trigger subconscious, emotional behavior such as mindless snacking and the surrender of personal data. 

To be sure, parents bear responsibility for teaching their kids healthy habits. But what parent, no matter how well-intentioned, can compete with aggressive and sophisticated multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns? Kids are bombarded all day long with ads countering the messages their parents try to impart.

And while food companies have pledged — with great fanfare — to scale back unhealthy food marketing to kids, studies show these efforts have been woefully inadequate. For instance, on Nickelodeon, the most popular children’s TV station, ads for foods of poor nutritional quality went down from about nine in 10 of all food ads (in 2005, before self-regulation) to eight in 10 (in 2009, after the self-regulation initiative was implemented).

Federal policymakers are legally free to pursue a range of strategies to help protect children and teens from dangerously deceptive marketing, as long as the regulations are tailored to the appropriate age group. They could bar online junk food “advergames” aimed at children and teens. They could cap the number of junk food ads on children’s TV. They could limit the use of product placement in programming and licensed characters in ads directed to children.

It’s only politics, not law, that’s standing in the way.

Samantha Graff is director of legal research at Public Health Law & Policy.

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