What Ronald Reagan Has to Do with Dora on Your Popsicle Package

The backstory behind Shrek hawking Twinkies

If asked to think of the lasting legacies of Ronald Reagan, you might conjure up the long shadow of US military intervention in Central America or the coordinated attack on organized labor and public-sector programs. Probably few of us would think about the spectacle of Shrek hawking Twinkies. But one lasting consequence of Reagan’s reign is felt by every parent in the country every day: As president, Reagan opened the floodgates to targeted junk food marketing to children and teens.

For more than 12 years I’ve been writing about our broken food system – how it’s impacting our health, our environment, even our climate. But only when I became a mom did I begin to see clearly the harmful impacts of a political history that sanctions virtually unfettered marketing to children and teens. We have Reagan to thank for that.

By the late 1970s, concern about advertising to kids had grown so strong that a Federal Trade Commission taskforce took on the question about whether to ban or regulate this onslaught of marketing. Sixty thousand pages of expert testimony and 6,000 pages of oral testimony from leading experts on health, child psychology, and nutrition followed. The conclusions were clear: kids can’t distinguish between programs and commercials. As the report published at the time put it: “very young children are cognitively unable to understand the selling intent of ads.” Experts argued that these findings provided strong legal ground for special protections for children.

Based on recommendations from the taskforce, the Federal Trade Commission proposed sweeping regulations to restrict television advertising to children. The proposal would have covered all television advertising to children too young to understand the concept of commercials – ads deemed “unfair and deceptive.” For older kids, the recommendation was a ban on television advertising for highly sugared products. The idea was that although older kids realize they’re being advertised to, they’re still not sophisticated enough to understand long-term health consequences. For ads targeted to older kids, proponents suggested in-ad warning disclosures or funding public service announcements to balance the commercial messages.

But as the rulemaking got bogged down in negotiations, the food industry got busy. Companies with much to lose if the restrictions passed raised $16 million to lobby against them. (To put $16 million in perspective: that was one-fourth of the entire budget of the Federal Trade Commission at the time.) As Tracy Westen, former deputy director for consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, explains it: “No one had ever raised that much money to oppose an agency rule-making proceeding.” And it wasn’t just food companies who banded together. According to Westen, “The sugar industry, the candy industry, the toy industry and the broadcast industry. The farmers were against us because they were raising wheat that was being used in sugared cereals. We even had the cigarette industry against us.”

Everything changed in 1980. As one of his first moves of his presidency, Reagan appointed a new FTC chairman, one more interested in pleasing business than parents. Within a year, the proposals were killed. What’s worse, Congress passed the Federal Trade Commission Improvement Act, which, Westen says, “mandated that the FTC would no longer have any authority whatsoever to regulate advertising and marketing to children, leaving markets virtually free to target kids as they saw fit.” Over the next couple of years the Reagan administration eliminated any remaining government oversight and deregulated children’s television.”

That was 1981. Ever since, the regulatory climate for marketing to kids has been pretty much the same: let the industry self-regulate while advertising continues unabated. Deregulation not only meant advertisers could sell kids sugary cereal during breaks in morning cartoons, but they could actually craft entire shows around toys to sell products. A year after deregulation passed, the top ten best selling toys all had their own television shows, including Transformers, GI Joe, and Carebears.

Today, the food industry reports spending nearly $2 billion a year in marketing directly toward children. Despite industry promises, there has not been a substantial improvement in the nutritional content of food and beverage ads. By 2009, 97.8 percent of television ads seen by children aged 2 to 11 years old were for products high in fat, sugar, or sodium. And, none – not one – of the cereal brands marketed to U.S. children met nutritional standards set for advertising to UK children.

In my latest mythbusting movie, I expose just what this legacy is doing to our children and what we can do about it. Watch the movie and join us in taking action.

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