More: http://www.yahoo.com/s/93503By DAVID BARBOZA The New York Times
THE McDonald's Corporation wants to be everywhere that children are.
So besides operating 13,602 restaurants in the United States, it has plastered its golden arches on Barbie dolls, video games, book jackets and even theme parks.
McDonald's calls this promotion and brand extension. But, a growing number of nutritionists call it a blitzkrieg that perverts children's eating habits and sets them on a path to obesity.
Marketing fast food, snacks and beverages to children is at least as old as Ronald McDonald himself. What's new, critics say, is the scope and intensity of the assault. Big food makers like McDonald's and Kraft Foods Inc. are finding every imaginable way to put their names in front of children. And they're spending more than ever $15 billion last year, compared with $12.5 billion in 1998, according to research conducted at Texas A&M University in College Station.
"What really changed over the last decade is the proliferation of electronic media," says Susan Linn, a psychologist who studies children's marketing at Harvard's Judge Baker Children's Center. "It used to just be Saturday-morning television. Now it's Nickelodeon, movies, video games, the Internet and even marketing in schools."
Product tie-ins are everywhere. There are SpongeBob SquarePants Popsicles, Oreo Cookie preschool counting books and Keebler's Scooby Doo Cookies. There is even a Play-Doh Lunchables play set.
While the companies view these as harmless promotional pitches, lawyers are threatening a wave of obesity-related class-action lawsuits. Legislators are pressing to lock food companies out of school cafeterias. And, some of the fiercest critics are calling for an outright ban on all food advertising aimed at children.
"The problem of obesity is so staggering, so out of control, that we have to do something," says Walter Willett, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "The vast majority of what they sell is junk," Mr. Willett says of the big food makers. "How often do you see fruits and vegetables marketed?"
The increase in food marketing to children has closely tracked their increase in weight. Since 1980, the number of obese children, has more than doubled to 16 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites).
School districts in New York and Los Angeles have responded by banning the sale of sugary beverages and snacks in school vending machines.
Most big food companies, despite some promises to offer healthier foods and in some cases to limit marketing in schools, deny that they are to blame for the epidemic of excess weight. They insist that sedentary behavior, a lack of exercise and poor supervision and eating habits are responsible.
Food companies say their commercials don't encourage overeating, that the foods they advertise are meant to be "part of a balanced diet," and that some foods are meant to be only occasional treats.
"We talk about offering carrot sticks," says Karlin Linhardt, the director of youth marketing at McDonald's. "And we have parents come in and say, `We offer them carrot sticks at home. When we come to McDonald's we want a treat, french fries."
Why would companies take aim at children so energetically? Because they, increasingly, are where the money is.
"It's the largest market there is," says James McNeal, a professor of marketing at Texas A & M and an authority on marketing to children. "Kids 4 to 12 spend on their own wants and needs about $30 billion a year. But their influence on what their parents spend is $600 billion. That's blue sky."
In toy stores, children can become accustomed to food brands early by buying a Hostess bake set, Barbie's Pizza Hut play set or Fisher-Price's Oreo Matchin' Middles game. And, for budding math whizzes, there is a series of books from Hershey's Kisses on addition, subtraction and fractions.
Schools are also a major marketing site. With many school districts facing budget shortfalls, a quick solution has come from offering more profitable fast food from outlets like McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut.
SOME schools have contracts to sell fast food; others have special days allotted for fast food.
The Skinner Montessori school in Vancouver, Wash., for instance, has "McDonald's Wednesdays" and "KFC Fridays."
There are McDonald's McTeacher's Nights in Jefferson City, Mo., and Pizza Hut Days in Garden City, Kan.
"It's awesome. They love it," Tracy Johnson, director of nutrition for the 7,500-student school district in Garden City, Kan., says of the Pizza Hut food. "We also serve vegetables. We try to make it into a healthy meal."
According to a survey by the C.D.C., about 20 percent of the nation's schools now offer brand-name fast food.
Vending machines now dominate school corridors. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have "pouring rights" contracts in hundreds of schools nationwide.
Lawyers and consumer advocates have harshly criticized educators for "commercializing the schools" and sending poor dietary messages to children.
"It seems very clear it's a breach of duty," says John Banzhaf, a professor of law at George Washington University in Washington and one of the lawyers pressing for class-action lawsuits against big food companies. "Schools get paid a kickback for every sugary soft drink or burger sold."
Some food companies heatedly defend their promotions, and their products. "I think our communication with children is appropriate; we're not shoving it down their throat," says Ken Barun, director of healthy lifestyles at McDonald's, adding, "To make a general statement that McDonald's food is unhealthy is wrong."
Industry officials concur. "These foods and beverages are safe, and consumers in some cases parents have to be the one to make the decisions about how much should be eaten," says Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents the nation's biggest food companies. "The industry is trying very hard to be responsible in the way it markets these foods."
Still, legislators and school districts are rethinking school marketing. There are more than 30 bills before state legislatures around the country proposing to ban certain snacks and beverages from school vending machines, according to the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University in Tempe.
TELEVISION, of course, remains the most powerful medium for selling to children. These days there is no shortage of advertising opportunities with the emergence of the Walt Disney Company's Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, which is owned by Viacom, and the Cartoon Network, a unit of AOL Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting.