Today, Ralph Nader and the sports reform project League of Fans sent a letter to NBA star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers asking him to advocate for more responsible marketing practices to help minimize the risk of obesity in children in his anticipated endorsement contracts with McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. The letter follows.
Dear Mr. James:
Congratulations on your amazing rise to become one of the best players of the NBA, exceeding the expectations of virtually everyone and handling the pressure and hype like an experienced veteran.
Two years ago we requested, unsuccessfully, that you use your new and unparalleled commercial influence and negotiating power to help improve conditions in the contracted factories for the workers who make the Nike products you endorse. We remain hopeful that you will not forget about these sweatshop workers and will someday choose to support justice for them and even visit them.
It was reported by the New York Daily News that you are in negotiations for new endorsement deals with two other large multinational corporations: McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. We would like to extend our hope that, prior to signing, you will do something positive for the many children whose health and well being are put at risk by the marketing practices of these junk-food* giants.
American children are suffering from an epidemic of obesity. The marketing-related and diet-related disease of childhood obesity has doubled in children and tripled in teens over the last 20 years, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Junk-food marketers such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have reshaped the diets of kids, and the dramatic rise in fast food and soft drink consumption has paralleled the boom in childhood obesity.
Experts at targeting children with aggressive advertising, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola no doubt plan to use you as they have so profitably used other star athletes before: as a vehicle to push their unhealthy junk food on kids and, ideally for these corporations, to hook or “brand” them for life.
According to Margo Wootan, Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Children often lack the skills and maturity to comprehend the complexities of good nutrition or to appreciate the long-term consequences of their food choices. Furthermore, young children don’t understand the persuasive intent of advertising and are easily misled. Older children, who still don’t have a fully developed understanding of advertising and the consequences of unhealthful diets, have considerable spending money and opportunities to make food choices and purchases when their parents are not there to guide them.”
On your website, you are quoted at a holiday community event for kids in your home town, stating: “I say this all the time and I mean it, I’m all about the kids. I remember being here just like them and I’ll always give back to the kids.” But we doubt that encouraging children to eat and drink junk foods and beverages that might as well have been specifically designed to make them fat was a contribution you had in mind.
Today, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are synonymous with childhood obesity. But with your anticipated endorsement contracts, you have the chance to use your cultural status to help improve the health and well-being of children by helping to change the current practices of junk-food marketing to kids. If McDonald’s and Coca-Cola were to market more responsibly, as the largest and most influential companies of their respective market categories, it would pressure the entire food and beverage industry to change.
Studies show that food marketing attracts kids’ attention and affects their food preferences and choices. Food commercials, mostly for products low in nutrition but high in fat, sugar, salt and calories, account for the most television advertising during children’s peak viewing hours. Such items have become unhealthy, obesity-promoting staples in the daily diets of many young people, increasing the likelihood for the occurrence of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke and heart disease. According to the Institute of Medicine, food and beverage companies spend an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion a year pitching products to children and adolescents.
Television advertising is just one way McDonald’s and Coca-Cola profit by pushing obesity- and disease-causing junk foods and soft drinks on children. Formerly places where good nutrition was taught and where profit-seeking corporations were much less ubiquitous, schools (especially those facing budget shortfalls) have become a paradise for junk-food marketers. In schools, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are able to bypass parental authority and use their relentless skills and resources (including child psychologists) to influence the food choices of a captive audience of developmentally vulnerable children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 94 percent of high schools, 84 percent of middle schools and 58 percent of elementary schools allow the sale of soft-drinks on their premises. 20 percent of schools allow the sale of brand-name fast food on their premises. Apart from exclusive contracts to sell products directly in schools, junk food is often marketed in schools: on the Channel One television station; by placing logos, spokes-characters and other product marketing on vending machines, in books and curricula, on scoreboards, buses and other school property; by sponsoring educational incentive programs that provide food as a reward for academic achievement; and incentive programs that provide schools with money or school supplies when families buy a company’s products.
McDonald’s and Coca-Cola continue their assault on the health of school kids despite growing criticism from parents, school officials, legislators, and community and health organizations. Some schools have actually become Coke pushers with contracts that include financial incentives for schools to sell more, thus encouraging kids to consume more soft drinks. Using a different strategy to market to children in an eye-rolling attempt to link their products with health experts, McDonald’s has launched a new program with Ronald McDonald going to elementary schools to talk to kids about fitness.
In the coming weeks and months, you will find yourself in a strong position with the ability to help protect children’s health. The aforementioned Center for Science in the Public Interest has provided criteria for marketing food and beverages to children in a manner that does not undermine children’s diets or harm their health. Released in January 2005, the enclosed “Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children” provide recommendations that McDonald’s and Coca-Cola have a responsibility to work toward to improve marketing practices and minimize the risk of obesity in children.
As McDonald’s and Coca-Cola negotiate contracts for your services, we urge you to push for inclusion of the following five (paraphrased) “Guidelines” as contract conditions. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola must:
(1) support parents’ efforts to serve as the gatekeepers of sound nutrition for their children** and not undermine parental authority including through encouraging children to nag their parents to buy nutritionally-poor*** foods and beverages;
(2) support healthy eating in schools and not market, sell, or give away nutritionally-poor foods or brands anywhere on school property;
(3) eliminate advertising for nutritionally-poor foods and beverages during television shows for which more than a quarter of the audience is children;
(4) eliminate the use of product or brand placements for nutritionally-poor foods and beverages in media aimed at children, such as movies, television shows, video games, websites, books, and textbooks;
(5) eliminate general brand marketing (marketing that does not promote individual products, but rather a line of products or a whole company or subsidiary) aimed at children when more than half of the products are of nutritionally-poor quality.
At the very least, we ask that you demand from McDonald’s and Coca-Cola a guarantee that any product which uses the “LeBron James” name or likeness meet the five conditions listed above. If none of these conditions are met, we urge you to refrain from endorsing these companies.
If you feel that you are not yet in a position to make an informed decision on whether to leverage your power to diminish the effects of marketing junk food to children, let us recommend that you call on the talents of the many health experts and activists in the fight against childhood obesity who would be very pleased to assist you in learning about the practices and effects of marketing to children and the roles which McDonald’s and Coca-Cola play. Some of these experts are listed in the attached “Guidelines.”
We wish you continued success in your professional career and look forward to your response, unlike two years ago when your agent recommended that you not have the courtesy to reply to our first letter.
Director, League of Fans
* The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have defined junk food as “foods which provide calories primarily through fats or added sugars and have minimal amounts of vitamins and minerals.”
** The “Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children” apply to children of all ages (less than 18 years of age).
*** Nutritionally-poor is extensively defined in the enclosed “Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children.”
The Center for Science in the Public Interest’s “Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children” (pdf)
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