This year’s outbreak of the H1N1 swine flu has triggered various controversies, especially with respect to the necessity and safety of the vaccine recently made available to the general public. Although such health concerns are understandable and valid, a less rational argument has also surfaced. At the center of this debate is the Kellogg Company, the nation’s largest cereal maker and producer of breakfast products including Rice Krispies®, Froot Loops®, and Frosted Flakes®. Last month, Kellogg added banners to the front of its cereal boxes reading “Now helps support your child’s immunity,” a claim that has drawn criticism from parents and health advocates alike. Many critics believe Kellogg is intentionally capitalizing on people’s fear of the swine flu in order to boost profits. As consumers, it is easy to side with Kellogg’s attackers, especially in such a stressful time during which health concerns have been exaggerated. However, can Kellogg truly be branded as an opportunistic company that maliciously takes advantage of its customers by printing dubious health claims? An accusation of such degree is biased and extreme, especially when considering all evidence of current trends in advertising.
First, the direct correlation that skeptics draw between the swine flu outbreak and Kellogg’s immunity health claims needs to be examined and questioned. In fact, Kellogg states that the company began developing cereals with higher vitamin contents more than a year ago, long before most people even became aware of swine flu. Moreover, cereals with special health labels were in stores last May, months before the start of the flu season. This begs the question of why people are making strong associations between two events that may be entirely unrelated. One possible explanation is that in times of distress, individuals are more prone to cynicism, or “a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” With the exaggeration of the severity of swine flu, it is no wonder that many people develop irrational fears and as a result become unnecessarily tense and anxious, inducing paranoia.
In addition to average consumers, health advocates are also wasting their time in criticizing Kellogg’s new cereals and their labels. For instance, Kelly Brownell of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, explained to Kelly Wallace of CBS News that “It simply defies logic to think that spraying on some vitamins and minerals to a cereal…makes a healthy product.” True, boosting immunity takes much more than increasing vitamin and mineral contents; however, health advocates need to ask if the new cereals are at least as healthy as the old ones. That is to say, aren’t the new high vitamin content cereals still an improvement from the old ones regardless of how much vitamins actually play a role in increasing immunity? Therefore, health advocates who are determined to prove the invalidity of Kellogg’s claim are taking it too literally, not to mention investing too much energy and effort that would be better spent on more important issues.
Perhaps the aspect of the attacks against Kellogg that is most worthy of note is the fact that regardless of how inaccurate Kellogg’s claim is, it is simply a marketing technique that is used by many other companies and cannot be stopped. Even when considering only advertisements for cereals, statistics show that many cereals, including Lucky Charms, Reese’s Puffs, and Cookie Crisp, which are all manufactured by General Mills, average three to four unsupported health claims per box. Even if all such false advertisements are eliminated in the future, parents and health advocates alike have many more battles ahead. According to a study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, cereal companies spend more than $156 million per year marketing to children, and the average preschooler sees 642 cereal ads per year on television, almost all for cereals with little nutritional value. Above all else, cereal companies and any other for that matter, are businesses, which cannot help but exaggerate the benefits of products in order to lure consumers and make profits. From a legal perspective, private parties including consumers and competitors can file a complaint for false advertising under the Lanham Act. However, merely proving the advertiser falsely advertised is not sufficient. In fact, the plaintiff must also prove that he “was injured as a result of the deception.” Thus, the law tries to protect not only consumers, but also businesses, making the former’s battle even more difficult. Truthfully, it is idealistic and naïve of anyone to believe that advertising strategies, especially those targeted towards young children, can be changed to be more truthful in the near future. After all, the primary goal for companies is to ensure their own survival. Therefore, rather than attacking Kellogg, it is wiser to realize that we need to put greater trust in our own judgments, which sadly are often undervalued despite their reliability.
1 Keri Glassman. 2009. “Kellogg’s Immunity Claims Draw Fire.” The Early Show. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/11/03/earlyshow/health/main5508662.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody
3 Daily Mind, The. 2009. “How You Can Defeat Cynicism and Become a Positive Thinker.” The Daily Mind. http://www.thedailymind.com/how-to/how-you-can-defeat-cynicism-and-become-a-positive-thinker/
4 Keri Glassman. 2009. “Kellogg’s Immunity Claims Draw Fire.” The Early Show. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/11/03/earlyshow/health/main5508662.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody
5 Deardoff, Julie. 2009. “Study: Sugary Cereal Ads Target Children.” The Chicago Tribune. http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/features_julieshealthclub/2009/11/sugary-cereal-ads-target-childrenimmunity-claims-from-itsboxes-of-cocoa-krispies-and-rice-krispies-and-the-smart-choice-logo-.html
7 Frank D. Edens. 2008. “False Advertising Law & Legal Definition.” US Legal. http://definitions.uslegal.com/f/false-advertising/