February 23, 2005
Washington, DC — William C. MacLeod, head of the competition practice of Kelley Drye, recently spoke at the Institute of Medicine about childhood obesity and advertising. In his address to a special Committee on Obesity, Mr. MacLeod noted that since the 1950s, advertising has been cited as a causal factor for various social phenomena, the most latest being obesity. However, after examining the best data available on advertising viewed by children, he found that advertising and obesity trends were moving in opposite directions.
In 2004, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the American Psychological Association released reports that concluded that advertising was contributing to obesity. Critical to their analysis was the finding that advertisements viewed by children had grown from 30,000 to 40,000 messages per year over the last decade – and most of those were for food. However, the report was based on an extrapolation from a small sample of TV programming viewed by researchers.
Using data from Nielsen Media Research, Mr. MacLeod presented a report that provided a more precise estimate of the number of food, beverage and restaurant ads children watched from 1994 to 2003. He found that the food and restaurant commercials viewed by children had become shorter and the number of these commercials had fallen about 15 percent in the last decade. In addition, he found that real expenditures on food and restaurant advertising had also fallen about 15 percent.
Mr. MacLeod concluded that the data contradict the idea that advertising contributes to obesity. If obesity is increasing while advertising is falling, attempts to link the two would have to conclude that advertising reduced obesity. "The most sensible conclusion is that obesity is far too complex to explain with advertising," said Mr. MacLeod. "Any assessment of the role of advertising must rely on accurate data, not erroneous estimates."
William MacLeod is a former Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.