I told myself that I was done with subject. Enough with writing about the Rio Olympics and the parade of commercial messages that steer us to food and beverage choices that are wrong for us, while facilitating a disconnect between what nutrition experts and the public perceive to be healthful foods. Then it happened. A commercial featuring a smiling family with two perfect little children seemingly celebrating the moment with their meal of chicken nuggets; right in sync with the emotional tone of the sporting accomplishment that preceded it immediately followed an absolutely exhilarating moment of Olympic triumph on the TV screen.
A marketer would call it brilliant. The idea for these ads is to reach not just the adults, but young children especially and to create an emotional attachment to the product that is featured. Accomplish that, and you have a customer for life. This effort goes far beyond mere commercials. Think of all those shots of the Olympic Village, especially those constantly repeated panning shots down the long line of athletes queued up to get into the Village McDonald's. Does this not fit neatly in line with the notion that the road to Olympic glory is indeed paved with chicken nuggets? Might they also be trying to send a message that we can outrun the calories taken while visiting this fast food giant?
What most folks may not know is that there are few alternative food choices in the Village. And even nutritionists will tell you that there's nothing wrong with eating a little junk food after many months of disciplined eating in preparation for an event; that is, when the event is over. And perhaps the biggest incentive: the food at this particular McDonald's is free for all Olympic athletes and coaches (another brilliant stroke of marketing).
And there is no need to pick exclusively on McDonald's. According to a 2006 study, the average kid in the United States will see an average of 4,000 food-related advertisements per year. A whopping 98 percent of those ads are for food high in fat, sugar, or sodium.
We are in the midst of a major public health crisis as it relates to things kids eat. And it should be no surprise to anyone that children are extremely vulnerable to advertising and that advertising plays a major role in this public health crisis. Ads sway kids' preferences. Star athletes spokespeople sway kids' preference.
When children are exposed to advertisements for unhealthy food, they will in turn consume significantly unhealthier rather than healthy calories as a result. Younger children especially appear to be among the most susceptible to the impact of food and beverage marketing in terms of quantity and quality of calories consumed. So says a recent McMaster University study that examined the effects of unhealthy food and beverage marketing, caloric intake, and dietary preference among more than 6000 children.
Another new study from researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center shows that the food advertisements actually may change the area of the brain that controls how much children are apt to desire sugary cereals, candy, and fast food. The results of the study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, indicated that during the food commercials there was more activity in the portion of the brain that "encodes values and desires" than was observed during non-food advertising. This creates an imbalance between the desire for unhealthy foods and the discipline needed to rein in the cravings to maintain a healthy diet.
This news may be new, but it's hardly surprising. For years, nutrition experts have been calling for an end to junk food sponsorship at the games. The problem is, it seems that every time federal agencies advocated for changes to food-commercial regulations, industry lobbyists pushed back, and legislators ultimately side with the food companies.
In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission presented a report to Congress revealing that food and drink companies were spending $1.6 billion every year targeting children. After multiple policymakers signed letters urging the manufacturers to self-regulate, spending on child-focused ads dropped 20 percent by 2012. But since then, there has been no follow up report, effectively ending oversight of junk food marketing.
At the supply end of things, it's just as bad. According to a paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine, there remains a major disconnect between the nation's agricultural policies and nutritional recommendations. Federal policy tells us to fill 50 percent of our plates with fruits and vegetables. At the same time, federal farm subsidies focus on financing the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock.
According to the New York Times, the U.S. devotes less than 1 percent of farm subsidies to support the research, production and marketing of fruits and vegetables.
NBC's parent company, Comcast, paid $12 billion for exclusive Olympics broadcast rights to the games in the U.S. through 2032. They need to focus on their return on this investment. I get it. According to the marketing magazine Campaign, in 2012 McDonald's (which has sponsored the Olympics since 1976) paid $98 million to extend its Olympic partnership until 2020.
But as new studies suggest, there is a fundamental ethical question that needs to be addressed about marketing unhealthy foods to children - particularly when we know that there's a significant proportion of the population, both adults and kids, that struggle with carrying excess weight and with obesity.
As coverage wraps up on the Rio Olympics, NBC continues to be ripped in Social Media on a number of fronts; from its oddball selections and delayed coverage, to insensitive comments by some of its commentators, to event coverage lost due to Matt Lauer's tedious interview with Ryan Lochte.
Meanwhile, others have taken to calling these Olympics a "carnival of junk food marketing." I hope Congress is listening.
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.