When I first read the press release outlining Disney’s plan to slap Star Wars and Marvel characters on Dole fruits and vegetables, I felt a special kind of sick to my stomach. It’s the feeling you get after you see a snapshot of humanity that destroys all hope you’ve ever had for the future. The last time I felt this way was after watching a pissed-off Sizzler customer berate a manager for not letting her take a styrofoam cup of pulled pork to-go, because she paid for the all-you-can-eat salad bar, and she had not yet eaten all she could eat, and oh my God we’re all doomed to spend eternity on this nightmare of a planet.
Is nothing sacred anymore? Can we not even appreciate the beauty of a pineapple without slapping Iron Man’s stupid, smug robot face on there? And haven’t kids been manipulated enough? Can’t we just leave them alone for one second and give them a break from the onslaught of Halo-branded Mountain Dew, and Spongebob-shaped macaroni, and Ghostbusters-themed high-fructose corn syrup drinks? Shouldn’t vegetables be pure and good and natural and removed from the capitalistic shitstorm that is predatory food marketing?
The answer to all that is, in short: No.
Disney using its infinite power and influence to manipulate kids into eating carrots and celery is the best thing that could happen to the fight against childhood obesity.
Marketing nutritionally garbage foods to kids is such a massive problem that the World Health Organization published a report in 2010 essentially begging member nations to cut that shit out because it’s killing people. And some countries have, indeed, cut that shit out. A 2002 study in the U.K. found that 62.5 percent of all advertisements during children’s programming were for food products—a majority of which were high in fat, sugar, or sodium—compared to only 18 percent of prime time programming. In 2006, the U.K. enacted the world’s first statutory ban on predatory junk food marketing, which resulted in children being served 37 percent less of the offending ads. Other countries saw the resounding success and followed suit. South Korea implemented a law in 2008 forbidding junk food advertisements on TV between 5 and 7 p.m., which are the prime viewing hours for kids.
In the least surprising news of all time, America currently has zero restrictions on marketing junk food to kids—because of course we don’t. Aside from the fact that any piece of legislation that could be considered anti-business gets shot down lest we become godless Commies, Big Food also spent an estimated $175 million on lobbying efforts during Obama’s first term in office. Childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled in the last 30 years, and the CDC estimates that more than a third of all children or adolescents are now overweight or obese. Thanks, Obama!
You know why food companies spend so much money on advertising to kids, and so much money to protect their rights to do so? Because it works. Because kids are idiots and their brains aren’t fully formed enough to be able to control their emotions and understand consequences. Kids are stupid little manipulatable monsters who can manipulate their parents into buying things so they’ll stop throwing a public tantrum in the middle of a Ralph’s snack aisle, and that fact is preyed upon heavily by marketing executives in suits peddling artificially colored poison.
I was nine-years-old when the Tobey Maguire Spider Man movie came out. Which means that I was also nine-years-old when the Frosted Spidey-berry Pop Tarts inspired by the Tobey Maguire Spider Man movie came out.
Nine-year-old me needed Frosted Spidey-berry Pop Tarts like current-me needs oxygen. They were bright red and blue and the frosting pattern looked like Spider Man shot them out of his wrist web thing. And I knew Brian was going to show up to school with them on Monday because Brian’s parents were rich and he brought the best snacks and that’s why everyone loved Brian.
So when my dad refused to buy them for me at the store, I pulled the only power move that a nine-year-old has in his arsenal: I made scene in public and made everyone around me highly uncomfortable. I just started crying. I didn’t do it intentionally, but the tears of rage and fear that I wouldn’t be part of an important in-group started flowing. It was an autonomic response. I was old enough to know that wild screaming tantrums were inappropriate but not old enough to be able to control my emotions—emotions that were deliberately drawn out of me like blood from stone by a team of smarmy old dudes making six-figures-plus a year. My dad bought the Pop Tarts.
Since America refuses to pass any anti-marketing legislation, the Federal Trade Commission created a task force in 2005 to offer food companies a series of best practice guidelines and encouraged them to self-regulate. It was basically, “Hey, candy-slinging megacorporations, please start acting against your own self-interests so it will seem like we’re doing something without—y’know—actually doing anything.” And the megacorps were like, “But what if we don’t?” And then the task force was like, “Yeah, nothing happens.” And the food companies were like, “Oh. Cool,” and proceeded to do absolutely nothing to stop their predatory marketing to kids, because their bottom line was dependent on predatorily marketing to kids. Funny how that works.
A study came out in 2012 detailing the change in marketing habits after the self-regulatory guidelines were released. The FTC found that overall ad spending towards kids was down from $2.1 billion to $1.8 billion, and spending on TV ads were down about 20 percent. That initially looked like a victory until you found out that ad spending on “new media” like YouTube and Facebook went up 50 percent. Not only is advertising in “new media” considerably cheaper, meaning more ads are being served per dollar spent, but the user bases skew much younger on those platforms.
Disney is one of the few companies that’s actually taken the plea for self-regulation seriously. In 2012 the company issued an unprecedented plan that would phase out junk food advertisements targeting children on their radio and TV networks. Disney also introduced the “Mickey Check” which slapped the cartoon mouse’s face on menu items, packaged foods, and recipes that align with their health standards. Even Michelle Obama was a fan: “This initiative is truly a game changer for the health of our children,” she said in a press conference.
So how do you combat the negative effects food marketing has had on childhood obesity if you’re not willing to pass a bill and a vast majority of companies aren’t willing to regulate themselves? Fight fire with fire. For every co-branded piece of high-fructose corn syrup-laden trash put out there, why not slap a picture of BB-8 on a package of carrots and trick kids into thinking that their favorite movie robot is going to hate them if they don’t eat their vegetables? Turn all that negative manipulation into positive manipulation. Disney can even rebrand it to FUN-ipulation or IMAGIN-ipulation and really lean into the new marketing strategy.
Instead of Spidey-berry flavored Pop Tarts, what if Marvel had used that marketing budget on turning boxes of fresh strawberries into Spidey-berries? What if nine-year-old me, and generations of nine-year-olds to come, were screaming and crying in the middle of the produce department begging their parents to buy them fresh fruit? What if Brian’s rich parents were sending him to school with oranges that had collectible Avengers stickers on them, and made kids associate social acceptance with getting their daily dose of fiber and Vitamin C?
Obviously this isn’t going to solve the childhood obesity problem single-handedly, but one of the most influential and profitable companies in the world putting the egregiously shitty marketing habits of their competitors on blast and trailblazing a viable alternative path is a massive step in the right direction. When those Iron Man bananas finally hit shelves, I won’t be able to throw my money at them fast enough. And so should you.