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Avoiding the fast food war

Avoiding the fast food war

Posting in Finance

Kids need to diet, and restaurants should serve healthier food, but when is the media going on a diet?

The Rudd Center at Yale University has launched a media war against fast food.

Yale has issued a scathing press release about fast food marketing, which media outlets have gleefully swallowed with headlines like Fast Food Chains Target Babies, from CBS.

The report, available at the site Fastfoodmarketing.org, claims almost none of the kid meals being advertised are actually healthy, delivering huge doses of fat and sodium, and even when the healthy meals are advertised stores steer kids to the french fries and soft drinks.

What's being threatened is a political war over kids' food, but the industry has responded with no sense of urgency.

A press release from the National Restaurant Association (NRA) says only the industry likes food labeling and is increasing its healthy offerings. A request from SmartPlanet for further comment got no response.

Part of the problem here is that the NRA is a broad organization. It represents fine dining as well as fast food (the industry calls these places quick-service), chains as well as small businesses. Both franchisers and franchisees can be members, a spokesman said.

Most of the new marketing is directed by the major chains and franchisers. McDonald's alone has raised its kid marketing budget 21% and has 13 Web sites, including one for elementary school kids. (A note in the corner at Ronald.com says "Hey Kids. This is advertising!")

My own reporting on this has emphasized how small adjustments can help McDonald's do much better, how it has already moved in some healthy directions, and how giving parents calorie counts does change ordering behavior -- at least on behalf of the kids.

I'm concerned that a political fight could turn this into another global warming debate. The most vicious attack on how you might be fat in 20 years can be pushed back by simply pointing toward lower-calorie choices available today and crying freedom.

Besides the real problem isn't with the franchises or their advertising. The real problem has nothing to do with politics.

The real problem is with the media.

While many stations have "health reporters" who do short reports on healthy eating, actual shows tell the opposite story.

This has accelerated since Brooke Johnson took over as head of programming for Food Network in 2004. The network, and a number of spin-offs, are owned by Scripps Interactive, a spin-off of the newspaper chain I started my career with over 30 years ago.

A little full disclosure (or perhaps bragging) is indicated here. Both Johnson and I are alumni of the Medill School of Journalism's master's degree program. She went through it four years ahead of me.

Since SNI acquired 65% of The Travel Channel at the end of last year she's launched more shows about temples to gluttony and such things as Man vs. Food, in which the host tries to consume pounds and pounds of fatty calories at a single sitting while customers cheer him on.

Trouble is, such shows work. Women in Cable Television has named Johnson its woman of the year. The value of SNI has more than doubled in the last two years and is now at an all-time high. Expect more of this kind of programming, not less.

So, sure, kids need to go on a diet. Yes, quick serve restaurants should not target them as heavily, and franchisees should push the healthier fare. That's an easy story to write.

But when are we in the media going on a diet?

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure