The Asparagus Ad Gap


It's not that there are too many junk food ads aimed at kids, explain the authors of an important new study. It's that there aren't enough vegetable ads:

In a child's buffet of food commercials, more than 40 percent of the dishes are candy, snacks and fast food. Nowhere to be found: fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry or seafood.

Of food ads that targeted children, 34 percent were for candy and snacks, 29 percent for cereal, 10 percent for beverages, 10 percent for fast food, 4 percent for dairy products, 4 percent for prepared food and the rest for breads and pastries and dine-in restaurants.

In December 2005, the Institute of Medicine concluded that marketing practices from the food and beverage industry are out of balance with recommended diets for children and contribute to an environment that puts children's health at risk.

We now have data that conclusively shows kids are seeing an overwhelming number of ads for unhealthy food on all types of TV shows," Sen Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said. "The 'childhood obesity epidemic' isn't just a catch phrase. It's a real public health crisis."

So 40 percent of ads pitch products from a list of foods deemed unhealthy. According to Sen. Harkin, this shows–sorry, conclusively shows–that kids are overwhelmed. OK. Much, much more bizarre is the assumption that the proportion of ads should perfectly mirror the dietary needs of a healthy child. How exactly does this correlation work? Is one asparagus ad equivalent to one serving of vegetables? Does one pro-lettuce advertisement negate one Cookie Crisp ad? Apparently, one fitness-focused PSA is equivalent to one workout:

Children see few public service announcements compared to food ads. Children under 8 see one announcement on fitness or nutrition for every 26 food ads. For preteens, it's one announcement for every 48 food ads. And for teens, the ratio is one public service announcement for every 130 food ads.

That's right, kids: The way to stay slim and healthy is to watch nutritious television.

NEXT: Making the Short List

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  1. Question:

    How does one go about teaching a child to apply critical thinking skills to television advertising and such?

  2. Question #2:

    How many children are responsible for doing the grocery shopping for their household?

  3. The parent, who should be watching with the child, can start by saying not all commercials are reliable. As the years go on, the parent can ask questions about the information in the comercial to get the child thinking about it’s validity. I wouldn’t expect a 4 year old to be able to critically analyze comercials, but I would hope a 4 year old isn’t planning the diner menue each night.

  4. Isn’t the Jolly Green Giant targeted at kids?

  5. Why does Howley hate the junk food industry? C’mon!

  6. can we throw Margo Wootan and the rest of the Center for Science in the Public Interest down the mineshaft instead?

    /kicks activist.trods off

  7. Can I start calling her Kerry “think of the children” Howley?

  8. Is the real problem that Cookie Crisp tastes a lot better than asparagus?

  9. “Nowhere to be found: fresh fruit, vegetables, poultry or seafood.”

    I see a subsidized Marketing Association for Big Oyster on the horizon.

  10. How many ads for fresh fruit and vegetables are targeted at anyone? I don’t know about anyone else, but I haven’t the slightest idea what brand of lettuce I get at the store.

    You know why? Because these products aren’t sold to us in that way. The grocery store simply stocks romaine lettuce or maybe organic romaine lettuce, and none is significantly different than any of the others.

    Individual stores advertise their produce prices and that’s how I decide where to buy, based who has the best price on the fresh fruit that week.

  11. “How does one go about teaching a child to apply critical thinking skills to television advertising and such?”

    there’s a story in this week’s new yorker about a kindergarten class on media awareness that takes field trips to the local food market. talks about reading labels, etc.

  12. If my kid tried that shit, I’d say in a very calm voice, “What part of ‘No’ do you not understand, Timmy?” – like he was hurting me deeply just by asking whether we could have Cap’n Crunch for dinner.

    I’d then use my superior mass and adult understanding of basic geometry to maneuver him into the nearest corner.

    I’d hunker down so I was at his level. Pause for a few seconds, and then scream in my best R. Lee Ermey imitation, “Are you eyeballing me, son? You’d better not be eyeballing me or I will PT you until you fucking die!”

    I think that would probably nip that line of inquery in the bud.

  13. de stijl took parenting lessons from the Great Santini.

  14. The idiocy of that study is amazing. There are no ads for asparagus because farmers don’t advertise their products, as all asparagus is pretty much undifferentiated and the consumer has no idea what it is buying. Advertisers pay to market PRODUCTS in order to differentiate them. Why do scientists have so little clue as to how the market works?

    Plus, if one were to push for farmers to advertise, which this article implicitly backs, then huge corporate factory farmers would trounce local producers, an outcome I doubt most liberals would desire.

  15. A basketball to the back of the head cannot be ignored.

  16. I remember those PSA’s on ABC about healthy snacks. I also remember thinking, “yeah, right” as I munched my Pop Tart waiting for my cartoons to come back.

  17. I hanker for a hunk a cheese, myself.

  18. I wonder if “hankering for a hunk of cheese” was the original Atkins plan.

  19. Did anybody see that they just banned hankering in San Francisco?

  20. Foom,

    Nice Timer reference.

  21. Hanker? I barely know her!

  22. How does one go about teaching a child to apply critical thinking skills to television advertising and such?

    I just plan on yelling “that’s bulllshit!” at the TV every 10 seconds or so. Which is pretty much how I watch TV now, even without a child.

  23. Beans and rice is nice!

  24. they should not advertise for asparagus. people will then buy more and it will become more expensive. i love asparagus. i cannot abide by that outcome.

  25. How does one go about teaching a child to apply critical thinking skills to television advertising and such?

    Here is my plan… Run a slick advertising campaign, telling kids that if they collect 20 different box tops from 20 different brands of cerial, and then 20 different types of bottle caps… and then they hand-draw those labels and bottle tops perfectly with crayons, and they mail it in, they will get a brand new super cool video game console, for free!

    After the kid spends the next period of months trying to get the box tops and bottle caps and waiting in eager anticipation, and then another period of months after that going crazy for the totally sweet new awesome video game system that is coming, they recieve a letter in the mail saying “Sorry, sucker! Not everything you hear in commercials are true! No video game console for you!”.

    Those kids would be, from that moment on, immune to manipulation by advertising.

  26. I have a small garden plot and grow about 100 tomatoes a year. I think the government should force networks to give me ad time so I can sell my tomatoes. For the children.

  27. It’s not enough to insure a balanced supply of ads. Children must be monitored to insure that they CONSUME a balanced diet of ads. Perhaps a NCLB program for TV commercials?

  28. My favorite vegetable is doritos. My children prefer fritos. My theory is: why have the greatest medical care system on earth if you dont bother to throw em some bidness.

  29. Maybe a Paris Hilton tv commercial?

    she sure made me want a burger.

  30. Pro-veggie propaganda I remember from my misspent youth:

    Popeye’s love for spinach.

    The fruit salad on Carmen Miranda’s hat, which inspired Miss Chiquita and her jingle.

    The Jolly Green Giant – and don’t forget the Sprout! I can still sing that jingle. Good things from the garden…

    That commercial for a multigrain cereal (Team?) with the two farm families. One were Iowa corn farmers, the other Kansans who grew wheat. Each had a Dad who extolled the virtues of his crop, and a kid who kinda liked the other grain.

    Kix, boldly bragging that they tasted good without sugar. They float, too.

    One thing about produce branding. There’s always been some of it, if only when you bought by the bag or box. Did you want the Idaho potatoes, or the ones from Maine or Long Island? Washington apples, or New York? The Produce Guy arranges and prices the fruit by type (Delicious, Granny Smith, etc.) and the signs often tell you the state or country of origin. The state marketing boards advertise, if not to kids. Dole and Sunkist put stickers on their fruit, and Dole has gone into selling packaged salads. Then there are the co-ops that have significant brands, like Ocean Spray. The cranberry folks absorbed Indian River, the grapefruit people, 30 years ago. Fruit has some brands, even if the unbranded stuff dominates.

    The entire Justice League, baby Jesus and Ann-Margret could have endorsed onions when I was a kid, and I still wouldn’t have eaten them.

    I might eat an onion for Dana Delany. Maybe. I’m not promising, just blue-skying, y’understand.


  31. My kids don’t watch commercials (we have “On Demand” and a DVR), and yet they much prefer chocolate milk and candy bars to broccoli…

  32. Those junk food ads wouldn’t have looked so good to me if my mom and dad knew how to cook. It wasn’t until I left home that I found out that stuff like asparagus is pretty damned tasty when fresh and prepared well.

  33. Libertarian outrage over this sort of trivial nonsense is so tiresome. Who really gives a fuck?

  34. Yeah, “joe,” why expect libertarians to get upset over calls for censorship. RTFA!:

    Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the federal government should take a more active role in regulating the content of television ads aimed at children.

    “The industry is not as serious about self-regulation as they say they are,” Wootan said.

    It’s the old We want you to adopt voluntary guidelines, and if you don’t we’ll make you! trick.


  35. The Jolly Green Giant – and don’t forget the Sprout! I can still sing that jingle. Good things from the garden…

    I loved those ads, too. “From the land of sky blue waters (waters)…” Wait a minute! I’m remembering more now. “Hamm’s the beer refreshing…” Aw, crap! Maybe that’s why I drink so much beer and eat so little brussels sprouts.

  36. Anonymous Mom and Dad Critic – totally!!

    I didn’t realize veggies could be firm and have flavor until college. Mom was a big fan of canned food. But never enough canned Spaghettios, always too much canned corn and string beans.

    Ralph’s seems to have started selling Fresh mom-style veggies these days though. Soft, squishy, gooey and flavorless.

    That’s why I eat Oreos for dinner.

  37. Kevin

    Suppose they do enforce guidelines for advertizing shit aimed at kids. How the fuck does that affect me (or the kids, for that matter)? Have you heard that our government is torturing people? Did you know it’s spying on us? Complaining about the government’s regulation of ads aimed at kids is like complaining that Hitler didn’t cover his mouth when he yawned. Fucking moron.

  38. Joe (of the capital J variety),
    You, dear commenter, are the moron. You should hope that someone with more patience happens along to elucidate why so that you may grow from the experience.

  39. “Joe,” besides my First Amendment concerns – and why can’t I be pissed off about that and the fubar the Bushies have made of Iraq and the anti-terror effort? – more government regulation may just drive up the costs of making Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. Hell, if the damned goo-goo lawyers* at CSPI had their way, they’d just outlaw the foods they fear.


    *It’s important to remember that many of these groups are not made up primarily of disinterested scientists, but are actually public policy shops on the Naderite model run by lawyers and lobbyists. National Resources Defense Council is another of the same type.

  40. Count me among those who didn’t learn vegetables came in colors until I left home. I thought they were all mushy gray glop, because that’s how all my Southern relatives cooked them. Well, when they weren’t coated in cornmeal and fried in bacon grease, that is. (Fried okra is pretty good, especially with chili sauce.) These were people who made delicious pastries and fruit preserves out of sawdust, but couldn’t cook a vegetable to save their lives. Come to think of it, they feared meat-borne infections and so cooked all meat to a mummified well-done. Add dye and you could have made shoes out of most of our steaks. So, since the pies and cakes and Fritos were tasty and the actual food was terrible, guess which ones I ate? (I actually liked onions, because they escaped boiling. I was a huge Justice Leauge – Superfriends fan though.)

    Now, I learned that vegetables can be grilled or roasted, then served with butter, meaning my sons actually eat them. Broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, all consumed with enthusiasm. That, and the fact that no brussel sprout crosses my threshold. Heck, they even eat eggplant, as long as it’s cooked in lots of tomato sauce. Of course, they still prefer chocolate milk, but don’t they think chocolate is good for you now? Antioxidants and all?

    Now, if CSPI started providing free cooking lessons, that’d be a good thing. Also gym memberships or sponsoring sports clubs or hiking clubs or dance classes. If you’re active enough, you can live on grease and still be healthy, and, as any athlete knows, if you’re really active, you quit wanting junk food anyway. So there.

  41. “Maybe a Paris Hilton tv commercial?

    she sure made me want a burger.”

    I found that ad to be a serious let-down. After all of the controversy swirling around it, upon seeing it, I fully expected the spot to conclude with Paris jamming her index and middle fingers down her throat, causing her to heave that just-consumed burger right back up, all on camera.

  42. Highnumber and Kevin,

    You are both living examples of why libertarianism will never be anything more than a loser’s cult. You’re too stupid to make distinctions, and that’s pretty fucking stupid.

  43. I didn’t realize veggies could be firm and have flavor until college.

    You’re confusing veggies with girls. More informercials please! It’s for the children.

  44. Joe,

    Do you have to swear so dang much?

  45. Brother Ben
    Your not eating a balanced diet!!! You forgot the other o’s food group – cheetos. as a good source of orange, they provide plenty of fiber and vitamin C.

  46. You are both living examples of why libertarianism will never be anything more than a loser’s cult.


  47. Joe,

  48. Maybe 40% of child advertising is for sweets and junk food because those are the foods they actually have some input on. Mom & Dad pick out most of the boring crap in the grocery store, but when it comes down to Cap’n Crunch vs. Cinnamon Toast Crunch, the kid has to know what’s what.

  49. This has got to be H&R’s favorite reoccuring theme…the funny part is that half the time people argue that it’s very important that the junk food business have unlimited ability to advertise to children, and the other half of the time people insist that junk food advertising has no effect and we shouldn’t worry about it.

    Also, I don’t know if Ms. Howley ever plans to have children but if she does I suspect she’ll look back one day at some of this stuff and be a little embarrassed.

  50. No, Dan. The idea that cookie crisp ads rise to the level of national crisis is absurd.

    Too, I don’t think you appreciate how toxic the public health argument can be. In theory the new issue of Reason has an artile in there about that, but I’ve not yet read through the thing.

  51. Jason, it’s only the commenters here who think that any expression of concern for children’s health is a “national crisis”.

  52. Drink!

    I count at least two matches – ranting about how libertarians are useless, and whining about how, you know, the government is doing other, bigger bad things – things that this site has had threads on pretty much every week since 2003.

  53. What advertiser is going to advertise except in the anticipation of capturing more business thereby? When something is new, they advertise, but when there are a million knock-offs, which of them is going to push the product that you can buy from any of them?

    So it is with stuff pitched at kids as anything else. Frozen orange juice concentrate was advertised for a while, until it became commonplace. What was the last time you saw an ad for that? Children’s bath foams were advertised heavily from about 1960 to about 1970, then practically no more; they built up use of such products from rare to standard, as parents can attest, so they don’t have to advertise any more.

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