Edible Education 101: Food Marketing and the Big Food Industry (Adler and Lappe)

Edible Education 101: Food Marketing and the Big Food Industry (Adler and Lappe)


(guitars playing) – Hi, I’m Mark Bittman
for Edible Education 101, and I’m here with Anna
Lappé, who’s an author and founder of Real Food Media, and Sabirna Adler, who is a lawyer and senior staff attorney
at Change Lab Solutions. Hi there, thanks for coming. – [Anna] Hi, Mark. – Thank you for having us. – I really have this one– I say this all the time, I say there are four or five
really big issues in food and the one that breaks my heart the most, the one that really kills me, the one that keeps me up at night is the marketing of junk to children. We could talk about the
others and they’re bad and there’s a lot of egregious
stuff going on in food. I’m sure we all agree, but this one, to me, is the
one that sets everything back, that means that the
future is 25 years away, that no one’s gonna be
healthy for a long time, and that is just the most
onerous, horrible thing. Well, blah, blah, blah. So,
[chuckles] what do you say? I mean, how is this relevant to your work and what can we do about this and am I wrong or what? And so, why don’t you start? – I have heard you say that before and I couldn’t agree with you more. One of the things that’s so important I think about raising it
as such a critical issue is because a lot of people dismiss it as “What are you talking
about, marketing the kids? “Isn’t it parents who are
ultimately the deciders “and isn’t this about just
turning off your television?” And really dismissing it as a marginal, not really a critical issue
the way, say, food and climate change or labor rights
in the food chain would be, but what people don’t understand is– I mean, people may be say for us and, there are increasingly
people who do get it. That it is a critical
issue because, as you said, it really sets up a lifelong
pattern of eating habits. It sets up a barrier between
parents and their children. It sets up dietary patterns
that have this incredible impact on the health of a whole generation, and we know that the
industry isn’t pulling back on that marketing to kids. It’s doubling down on it
at the tune of more than two billion dollars a
year in targeted marketing and advertising to children
and teens when we know, and the science has proven, that children are literally unable to
understand, cognitively get it, the difference between
information and marketing. In other words, children
are totally vulnerable to marketing and advertising in a way that we adults aren’t. And, so, it’s wrong on moral grounds, it’s wrong on health grounds and, as you say, it really sets
up generations of people to have these really
terrible eating habits. – Yeah, we can get into that. I always say I know how
irrational adults are and children are even dumber, so yeah. (laughing)
– Right, I mean, isn’t it? Our frontal lobes aren’t
developed until we’re 20, I think. – Yeah, I just heard 25.
– 25, alright. – In my case, it was 35.
(laughing) Is there something you want to say before I ask you specific questions? – Yeah! So, the other thing that
I would add to that too is that it’s just so ubiquitous, and it appears in so
many forms that people, maybe when they initially
think about marketing, think about things like
billboards or the ads on TV, but it’s not just that. It’s contest, it’s social media, it’s product placement
in TV shows and movies. It’s coming into schools. So, beyond just, I think,
the very obvious things that people think of when
they think about advertising. Marketing is much broader than that and really is infiltrating kids’ lives in everywhere they go and in every form. – I think we only have
a limited time here. For the sake of this conversation, maybe we spend a few
minutes on the problem but then maybe a little more time even on what possible solutions. Sabrina, I interviewed Samantha Graff. I don’t know her–
– Yeah, she’s my predecessor, colleague, both. – I don’t know, probably five years ago, when I first started really
being unhappy about this, I guess, or really trying to–
– [Sabrina] Uh-huh. – And, you know, I guess I didn’t know. As you said, this is morally wrong, this is wrong from a health
perspective, etc. etc. But it’s not illegal and
there’s a First Amendment issue here and it’s a real stumbling block. Can you talk about that a little bit? – Sure, so I’ll draw a
distinction to begin with, which is that it can be made illegal and it is not protected
by the First Amendment to the extent that it is
deceptive or misleading. And we can go down that
road a little bit more if you’d like to but there
is an argument to be made that all marketing to very young kids, for the reason that Anna mentioned, because of their lack of
cognitive development, is, therefore, not protected. But there are a lot of practical problems with approaching it that way, not the least of which is
it’s hard to figure out how to craft a law that really isolates that type of marketing
and that’s an argument that hasn’t been tested in court at all. So we don’t know that a court
would agree with that theory. It’s something we talk about a lot, but the reality and
what you’re alluding to is that there is this thing
called the First Amendment that, for better or for worse, is protective of what the
courts call commercial speech, which is essentially advertising, and that does make it very
difficult to enact regulations that directly address marketing. There’s one other distinction I’ll draw. And, again, we can
pursue this path further but just to set it out there, which is it does, however, really refer or protect the marketing
that is speech-based. So, what I just spoke about, the degree of marketing that
takes so many different forms, there is, I think, a lot of
leeway for us to do something about those other forms of marketing that aren’t billboard
ads or something on TV or things that directly implicate– – Because they not literally speech? – [Sabrina] Correct, correct. – Yeah, and just to jump in, this sort of gets into
some of the solutions piece as well as a bit of the problem piece, is that, as Sabrina said, this marketing, it touches kids in every
step of their lives, in every point of their day. And one of the places that
we’re really concerned about where it’s impacting kids is in schools. So you’re starting to see
branded curriculum in schools. I was just looking at
pre-school and elementary-level math curriculum produced by Kellog’s with Fruit Loops counting
cups and M,M counting charts. I mean, in schools you
have branded curriculum– – [Mark] Forgive me for interrupting. – [Anna] Yeah.
(chuckles) – I cannot believe that that’s legal. – [Sabrina] Yes, oh yeah.
– [Anna] Yes… But, what I was gonna say
is, and I could go on, I mean, that’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we’re seeing in schools. There’s many other examples. A colleague of mine from
Louisiana reached out to me to tell me that her kid came
home from school and said, “Oh Mom, guess what? “We had an assembly today with
a guy named Ronald McDonald.” And she said, “What
are you talking about?” Turns out Ronald McDonald and McDonald’s sends their character into schools to do community assemblies
teaching about things like reading and how to be
a good community citizen with, you know, a guy dressed
up like a branded icon from this fast food chain. And this mom said, “You know, I didn’t send my
daughter to school so she could “get advertised to during
the all-school assembly.” – Taught by Ronald McDonald.
– [Sabrina] Yeah. – Right! But, to bring this back
to the solutions piece, I mean, there are, of course, ways that schools are
totally legally allowed to decide what is and is not
permissible inside schools and in those public places. And so, for instance, wellness policies, which were developed really
from communities really interested in improving the
quality of food in schools. But wellness policies increasingly, many of them in school
districts across the country, include clauses about what is permissible in terms of marketing and
advertising in schools. And some school districts say,
with these wellness policies, that, you know, we don’t want
to see branded curriculum. We don’t wanna see, we don’t allow branded signage in the school gymnasium. We don’t allow branded vending machines. So, something like the wellness policy can be used in that particular way to limit marketing to kids in schools. – This leaves addressing the problem in the hand of individual
schools or school districts. What can be done about the big picture? I mean, the obvious question is, we have the tobacco model to follow, which there’s still some
loopholes but, for the most part, you don’t see billboards with
Joe Camel on them anymore. You can’t market stuff to kids. There’s no television advertising, etc. One could argue, and people do, that sugar, junk food, etc.
is not physically addictive in the same way that tobacco is. They correctly argue that but
there is increasing evidence that it’s at least somewhat addictive and, certainly it’s harmful. There’s tons of evidence
that it’s harmful. So we are, you know, destroying the lives of
future generations of people. How can we not be preventing or, you know. So how can we prevent this? What can we do? – So, two things in response
to what you’ve just said. First, the tobacco model that
gets used a lot as a kind of example of getting rid of
advertising and marketing to kids, a lot of that, for better or for worse, came from the settlement agreement that followed the lawsuit
that the attorneys general filed against the big tobacco companies. So they voluntarily agreed. Voluntary, maybe we use that
work in quotation marks. But they agreed as part
of that settlement process not to market in certain ways, including ways that would
not necessarily be okay if they had been enacted
through direct regulation. But, turning back to the schools issue and what can we actually do so it’s not left up to the individual school level, a little glimmer of hope, perhaps, is that there is a forthcoming, and it’s been imminent for many months now but I truly believe it is
imminent at this point, federal rule that will
require all school districts around the country to at least address unhealthy food marketing
in their wellness policies. Now, the details of that will be left up to the district level but, at the very least, it’s
setting a baseline. But, it also is a policy
area and because schools… What I just mentioned earlier
about it being very difficult legally to address food
marketing and a touch on this but because it’s a school environment and it’s a public property
and the government is controlling speech on its own grounds, there’s a lot more leeway to do something. And even, for example, state-level laws that set a limit on food
marketing in schools, whether that’s a limit on
unhealthy food marketing, or just a limit on food
marketing in general, or marketing in general, actually would be, for
the most part, okay. – Where’s that federal
regulation coming from? – The federal regulation is
coming from a set of regulations that were developed in
response to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. And it’s a general rule
about wellness policies around the country and
what they have to contain. And one small but important piece of it has to do with limiting food marketing. – And it’s under the Healthy,
Hunger-Free Kids Act? – It is regulations that
were enacted or promulgated, I should say, in response to a mandate as part of the Healthy,
Hunger-Free Kids Act, yeah. – Anna? – Yeah, well, not to bring us all down but I think one of the areas that, as you say, this is a glimmer of hope, we’re seeing some progress there, where I feel like we’re really
losing the bigger battle is what’s happening in the online space. What you hear from the industry is, “We’re self-regulating. “We’re reducing how much “we’re spending on television advertising. “We’re reducing our big ad spends.” And they can say that because
they are shifting the dollars. A lot of these food companies are shifting a lot of their marketing dollars to this online engagement with kids. And what many advocates,
not just from the food space but advocates for protecting children in general from marketing of all sorts, are saying is that, right now, what’s happening online
is like the Wild West. There’s very little regulation, very little oversight and
so you can find things. And I went down this rabbit hole. It was quite disturbing. You could find websites that
are targeting young kids. Things like, just to give one example, Kraft macaroni and cheese has this website where you can play this
game with the macaroni and make macaroni art and
it’s totally targeting kids. It asks you to put in your birthday. It asks you to put in
identifying information. It even asks, in some cases,
not that website in particular, but some of them even
ask for your phone number so you can get free prices. And, in this one particular
Kraft macaroni and cheese website totally targeting children, there’s a tiny little, I
think it was seven-point font, little note that said, “Read this for our rules.” And you click on it and
it’s thousands of words of legalese that I
could barely understand. And three quarters of
the way through it says, “Children, if you’re reading this, “be sure to ask your parents before you engage on this website.” I mean, it’s ridiculous– – [Mark] One of the
amazing things about that is that a lot of it is
geared to four-year-olds. They’re not even reading, or they’re barely reading, so… – Yeah, like McDonald’s flagship website, it was their happy meals website that is definitely targeting preschoolers. That is where the
regulation has not kept up with how fast young people’s
online engagement is happening and that’s where advocacy
groups have tried to step in. Groups like Corporate
Accountability International or the Campaign for a
Commercial-Free Childhood have tried to step in with fiery activists to try and make a change there because regulation is just not keeping up. – What about courts and
lawsuits and things, banding together of attorneys
general a la tobacco. There must be activity
in all of those arenas. – Yeah, I think there’s chatter
but it’s a really tough one for the reasons that I just described. – [Mark] For this First Amendment– – Yeah, exactly. Again, we can go back to the fact that things that are deceptive
are not protected, and I think we could start to
see some action in that area. I think it’s feasible to
file complaints, for example. But a complaint-driven
process, unfortunately, is not gonna have the same wide impact as coming at it from a
more global perspective. I think a lot of these
things that you see online, for example, probably
are, in theory at least, violating certain laws already
about deceptive advertising. The laws exist, but enforcement
in the online arena, and I’m far from and
expert on digital law, the law that has to do
with the digital space, it’s very complicated but there’s
so much that you don’t see and you don’t know is happening until you happen to navigate
down the kind of rabbit hole of Facebook or whatever it
might be to come across it. You could file a complaint but then you would have to do
that over and over again. – I’m looking for something a little more optimistic from you.
(women laugh) Or hopeful. – I think one of the
things I find hopeful, and I think it’s because we have these challenges at that national level, what I find hopeful are the stories that I’m hearing all across the country of successes at that local level. So, for instance, a couple of years ago, some Florida parents
saw that their district had signed a deal with McDonald’s
to have an advertisement from McDonald’s on the
back of the report cards that were going to be
sent home to parents. And it wasn’t that many parents who saw that this was happening, who reached out to the
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a national
advocacy organization. And, with the help of that organization, they were able to go to
the district and say, “This is unconscionable. “You’ve got to stop it.” And they got that stopped. I mean, is that a positive story? Is it a hopeful one or not?
(Sabrina laughing) But I do think it does speak
to when people organize collectively in response to these moments, some of the most egregious moments, you are seeing some change. Another encouraging example of that, another way that kids are
marketed to in schools is with a practice called
McTeachers’ Nights. This is a fundraiser that McDonald’s pitches to schools where their franchisees open up their franchise for an evening and the teachers and the principal often go to a local McDonald’s
and serve food all night, encouraging the school community to come have a meal at McDonald’s and have their meals
served by these teachers. Turns out that it ends up being maybe a dollar per kid what the school actually gets back from
profit of the evening. Obviously, it’s a total
advertisement for McDonald’s. So, one of the groups I mentioned, Corporate Accountability International, they just organized a group
of school board members, of the National School Boards Association, to call on school board members to say, “Hey, let’s stop these practices “in the school districts
that you represent,” and they were starting
get some traction there. So, I think it’s one of these stories that we need to mobilize and activate at all these levels so
the work you’re doing is still critical on the legal front. At the same time trying to spark and energize people at the local level to feel like they can make
change in their own communities while we’re also working on that level I think is really important. – Last question, I think. Some words we’ve been talking specifically about marketing kids’ food-ish to kids but of course there’s
marketing of junk food to everyone that affects kids as well. I think we’d probably agree
that the number one evil in this arena is
sugar-sweetened beverages. There has a tiny bit of progress in limiting the marketing of that, most notably the soda tax in Berkeley, but internationally much, much more. The junk and soda food tax in
Mexico and other countries. Here, both Oakland and San Francisco, are looking at soda taxes again this year and people are much more optimistic, hopeful than they have been. Is that a road that we want to support? I mean, obviously I want to support it, but is it something that we
think is a good strategy? Is it something that’s
gonna work going forward? Are there better strategies
people are looking at? – I think it’s a number of
strategies used in tandem. If nothing else, I think those, the soda tax or sugary drink
tax movements and efforts, are changing the conversation and, even when they’re not passing, they’re spreading the
word about these products. People are paying attention
more than they were. I just saw today, I think, that bottled water sales
are eclipsing soda sales. We can argue whether bottled
water is a good thing or not, but soda sales are declining. I think using conjunction
with other strategies, for example putting
warning labels either on sugary drink containers or on
the advertisements themselves, as San Francisco has just proposed, is another piece in
changing the conversation. And these are all things that we can do, given the legal climate so, coming at it from various
different directions. I think in certain places
it’s not politically feasible to think about a tax so
you maybe think about a different strategy and, when
you put them all together, at the very least I think it
is changing the conversation, which is the first step. – Yeah, and I think that
the win here in Berkeley with the soda tax already is
changing the conversation. When I hear from people in
other parts of the country about what they considered
politically feasible before and what they consider now. I think there’s a real opening. I think the fact that we are showing here in Berkeley when the tax passed, the soda industry spent
about 2.4 million dollars trying to fight and stop the tax here. We’re a city of 100,000 people. It ended up being like $700
for every ‘yes’ vote they got. But the fact that they lost badly here and that it really did show that, once implemented, it’s only been a year or
so since the tax passed, we already have the data to show. It’s about 1.2 million dollars in revenue. That’s now going directly to
diabetes prevention programs and nutrition programs
and the kinds of things people are really hungry for funding for. So I’m starting to hear
other communities say, “Wait a second, that passed and, “not only did it create this tax “on sugar-sweetened beverages, “but it’s also bringing in revenue “for the programs we need.” Philadelphia is another
city you didn’t mention that’s also looking into it. I really feel like, I don’t feel like I’m
going on a limb to say that we are going to look back and say, “This was just the beginning.” And we are going to see these taxes really sweep the country. I think we’re gonna see that
in just the next few years. – I’ll say a little more
even though superfluous. But Philly, of course, almost
passed this sort of tax. It was a long time ago
now, five or six years ago. New York almost passed this sort of tax. – Yeah, do you remember what the soda industry did in Philly? So it was the mayor that put it forward, and the City Council–
– [Mark] Nutter. – What’s that? – Mike Nutter. – That’s right, yeah. And the City Council was
pretty well in support of it, and the soda industry came in. I’m not gonna remember
the exact dollar figure, but north of 10 million dollars, they gave a grant to a
local children’s hospital. And it just tipped the scales
and the City Council bucked. And, again, I do feel like
there is this changing tenor in the country around the
influence of corporations in politics and that
kind of buying our vote. I think we’re starting to see
a lot more distaste for it. I think we are starting to see some attitudes changing around that, and I do feel like we’ll
see that with more people really feeling like
they can have a backbone and stand up against big sodas
spending that kind of money. My favorite, I’ll say one
more thing on the soda tax. My favorite quote I
heard from that campaign here in Berkeley was a young
door-knocking organizer who was talking to a
Libertarian about the soda tax. And this Libertarian was,
“Yeah, I want the soda tax.” And this young organizer said, ‘But wait a second, aren’t
you supposed to be against big government and don’t
you think those of us who are foursome like
this are the food police?” And the guy said, “You
know, if there’s anything “that I hate more than the
government telling me what to do, “it’s corporations telling the government “to tell me what to do.” – [Sabrina] Exactly.
(chuckles) – So, I think there’s a real
kind of broad coalition, a big tent that can get
behind this kind of tax. – That’s good. You know, I think that, we didn’t talk much about this, but obviously the longer we delay teaching our kids sound nutrition and good dietetic advice
or what real food is, the more we’re going to see
one generation after another be ailed 25, 50 years from now, and, at some point, people are
just gonna smack their heads and say “We could have
fixed this a long time ago.” Anyway, thank you both. – Sabrina and Anna] Thank you. – I’m Mark Bittman for Edible Education and I’ve been speaking with
Anna Lappé and Sabrina Adler.

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