Bush and Kids: Standing Small


February 28, 2005


Browse in Advertising Childhood Health

President Bush may be asserting friendship with “Old Europe,” as Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary, famously called it. But it is no secret that the Bush administration holds that part of the world in less than high regard. Time magazine reported that the Bush people frequently call their European allies “Euro-wimps.”

Well, guess what? When it comes to standing up for kids, those “Euro-wimps” have shown a lot of guts of late. The Bush people, to put it politely, haven’t.

For those who have been out of the cultural loop, the U.S. marketing industry has launched an all-out war on kids. It is saturating their lives with come-ons for junk food, junk-entertainment, junk anything. Not coincidentally kids have become hosts to an epidemic of marketing-related diseases: obesity, type-II diabetes, a general inability to focus their own attention.

On top of that, there is chronic strife and tension in American homes as kids whine and nag for things they’ve been seduced to want. Market research companies actually teach corporations how to tap this “nag factor.”

Parents do their best to cope. Many have gotten rid of their TVs. But the commercial seductions are everywhere now, even in the schools. The dominant institution in our society – the corporation – has injected itself into the relationship between parents and their own kids in a major way. Parents can’t fight this battle by themselves. They need some help.

One would think that the Bush administration, with its family values and macho swagger, would be eager for the challenge. Instead it has cut and run. Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of health and human services, actually stood before the Grocery Manufacturers Association – the main lobby for the junk food industry – and urged them to “go on the offensive” against critics. By that he means people who think parents, and not corporations, should guide the eating habits of children.

As for President Bush, he has said and done very little on the issue. The administration has talked about exercise, which is fine as far as it goes. But the thought of whipping kids through calisthenics, just to burn off the extra calories that the junk food purveyors are pushing at them, is grotesque to say the least. Are kids today really just consumption machines at the service of Coke et al.?

For a long time, Europeans thought that childhood obesity was an American problem. But as marketing has gone global, so too have the pathologies connected with it. According to the International Obesity Task Force, childhood obesity has “increased steadily” in Europe during the last two to three decades. Close to one in five school-age children in the European Union are overweight.

Unlike the Bush administration, however, the Europeans aren’t cowering from the task. On Jan. 1, 2005 Ireland banned television advertising for fast food and candy. John Reid, the U.K. health secretary, has said he will call for a ban or restrictions on junk food marketing to children if the marketers don’t show some self-control. And Markos Kyprianou, the European Health Commissioner, has drawn the line in the sand. “I would like to see the [food] industry not advertising directly to children any more,” he told the Financial Times last month.

The food industry must take responsibility for its own behavior, Kyprianou said. But “if this doesn’t produce satisfactory results, we will proceed to legislation.” He gave the industry a deadline of one year.

Kyprianou and his colleagues have faced plenty of industry pressure, just as public officials do here. The difference is they are standing up to it.

Political courage is seen in the willingness to be tough with your friends. For Democrats, that means primarily organized labor. For Republicans, it means big business; and the commercial assault on children is a case in point. The junk food industry has been among the administration’s biggest supporters. Among those who bundled $200,000 contributions to the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign were high executives or lobbyists for Coca-Cola, Safeway, Florida Crystals (a big sugar company) and Altria, which is majority owner of Kraft Foods.

Those who bundled $100,000 included executives or lobbyists from U.S. Sugar Corp., Nestle USA, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Yum Brands, which owns Taco Bell and KFC.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush told Congress, “Over the next several months, on issue after issue, let us do what Americans have always done, and build a better world for our children and our grandchildren.” If the president really means what he says, he might start by expelling junk food from the nation’s public schools, and instructing his Federal Trade Commission to tell the junk food marketers to butt out of the relationship between parents and their kids.

We’ll see whether the president walks his talk, or whether he just keeps caving to the big shots in the junk food industry.

Jonathan Rowe is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and a founder of the Tomales Bay Institute. Gary Ruskin is executive director of Commercial Alert.