Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest players in basketball history. But he will be remembered for another reason, too: He was the first major celebrity athlete to turn his back on multimillion dollar endorsement deals for soda and instead embrace water. Yes, water, and not the bottled stuff, but tap water. In his statement about the deal with water filter company Brita, Curry said: “Water is my drink. I like that Brita makes tap water taste good, so you don’t need to spend money or waste plastic with bottled water.”
Curry’s statement is all the more powerful in a cultural context in which young people are bombarded with marketing messages that promote junk food and soda, not healthy food and water. This includes advertising campaigns featuring some of the country’s biggest celebrity athletes and musicians, from Beyoncé pushing Pepsi to LeBron James championing Coke.
Food and beverage companies self-report spending as much as $2 billion every year in marketing targeted directly to teens and children. (To put that figure in perspective, the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) proposed 2017 budget for diabetes prevention is only $170 million). And, of course, much more marketing hits young people every day in the form of general advertising. This runs the gamut, from the nearly five thousand ads the average kid is seeing on television every year, to the infiltration of schools and social media with corporate promotions, product placements, and sponsorships.
Research shows that seeing food and beverage advertisements leads kids to prefer specific brands – and triggers them to eat more calories, period. Research also shows that children are cognitively unable to understand the manipulative nature of advertising; they can’t distinguish between what is advertising and what is information. That’s why advocates have long argued that marketing to children is inherently deceptive. And it’s one of the reasons we should end it.
But limiting exposure to this harmful marketing isn’t as simple as turning off the TV. Marketing follows children everywhere, from the classroom to the playground to the online world they engage in through social media and video games. There are math books sponsored by Oreo cookies, and branded games and online apps created by Kraft Macaroni & Cheese. There are school fundraisers pushed by Coca-Cola that encourage PTAs to pull families into soda-marketing promotion schemes. There are product placements in children’s favorite movies and TV shows. And on and on.
This marketing disproportionately targets communities of color, too. According to the UConn Rudd Center for Obesity and Food Policy, African-American kids see 50 percent more TV ads per year than their white peers, for example.
The impacts of all of this marketing include the mounting obesity and diabetes epidemics, results of too much salt, sugar, and fat. In fact, nearly half the calories children and teens now eat come from fat and sugar. Only 16 percent of children consume the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables. And these diet-related illnesses are impacting communities of color at a greater rate than white communities. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that African Americans and Latinos have 30 to 40 percent poorer health outcomes than white Americans.
Communities are pushing back. Working with Corporate Accountability International, parents and teachers are standing up to McDonald’s “McTeachers Night” fundraisers – where teachers get behind the counter and sell burgers to students – as a form of marketing disguised as charity. Across the country, public school district “Wellness Policies” curtail what marketing is allowed in schools – and all schools may soon be required to address this issue as the USDA finalizes its pending rule on wellness policies. In my town of Berkeley, California, the school board states clearly: “The Board prohibits the marketing and advertising of non-nutritious foods and beverages through signage, vending machine fronts, logos, scoreboards, school supplies, advertisements in school publications, coupon or incentive programs, or other means.”
While parents and advocates are pushing for policies that constrain the reach of junk food advertising, there is still a long way to go before children and teens are protected from this predatory practice. In the meantime, we can applaud celebrities like Curry who choose to hawk H20 instead of sugary drinks. In his statement about the advertising deal, Curry made this simple point: “Drinking water is essential to a healthy lifestyle.” In an era when Coca-Cola spends 10 times more marketing its sugar-sweetened beverages than the CDC budget to fight diabetes, such a statement isn’t just rudimentary, it’s radical.
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