Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Audacity of Reducing Children's Screen Time

I admit it. I have a soft spot in my heart for television. Hours of childhood make-believe and an entire life’s work were inspired by TV and movies. I become a professional ventriloquist because of television—believe me, I don’t come from a family of people who talk without moving their lips. And I spent untold joyful hours playing about characters I encountered on the screen—Flash Gordon and Peter Pan. As an adult, I had the opportunity to bring my puppets to Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and I shared Fred Rogers’ belief in the potential, and the obligation, of screen media to benefit children.

So I can’t escape the irony that I now direct The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an organization in the forefront of a movement to limit commercialism—and the screen time it supports—in the lives of children. As I wrote in my book, The Case for Make Believe, I struggled long and hard to understand why I am so troubled by children’s relationship to screen media today when my own childhood experience was so positive. But there are significant differences between my experience of screens and that of children today—namely unlimited access and out-of-control commercialism.

The Flash Gordon series aired maybe once a year. I saw Peter Pan in a movie theater once when I was 6 and didn’t see it again until I was 19. If I wanted to re-experience the profoundly deep and glorious feelings these characters and the worlds they inhabit evoked in me, I had to play about them. And since they entered my life on a screen only rarely, I had the time, space, and silence to embroider and embellish as I liked—to combine the realms of Neverland and the planet Mongo, home of the evil Ming the Merciless, and to insert myself gloriously in the middle of the action.

Children today don’t have that opportunity. It’s hard to come by time, space, and silence for their own creations. Popular media characters impinge on daily life, cavorting on screens everywhere—at home, in theaters, in the back seats of cars, on airplanes, on cell phones, in doctor’s offices, on MP3 players, and even on grocery shelves. Cartoon icons and superheroes beckon constantly from food, clothing, toys and accessories. Explaining that screen media programming is now targeted at children in the interstitial moments of their lives—when they’re between places—an executive at Nickelodeon quipped, “Nickelodeon is everywhere kids are.”

Preschool children spend, on average, a staggering 32 hours a week in front of a screen outside of school. And too many are adding to that time in school as well. According to a 2009 study in Pediatrics, 36% of center-based child-care programs include television time, for an average of 1.2 hours a day, and a troubling 70% of home-based child-care programs include television time for an average of 3.4 hours per day. To their detriment, and society’s, the default activity for children around the world is to be in front of a screen. In addition to the erosion of children’s creative play, hours spent with screens are linked to childhood obesity, poor school performance and other major problems.

It’s daunting to think about the money and power driving the push for a childhood characterized by all-screens-all-the-time. But here’s what’s hopeful: That there’s a need for balance may be getting some traction. The TV blaring in the pediatrics department of my HMO has been replaced by a large aquarium. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has joined The American Academy of Pediatrics in recommending no screen time for children under 2 and limited time for older kids. 70 leading early childhood educators, pediatricians, researchers and child advocates joined CCFC in urging the National Association for the Education of Young Children to take a leading role in the growing effort to reduce the amount of time children spend with screens. The organization is revising its 1996 position statement on children and technology.

I still believe in the potential of quality, commercial-free screen media to benefit children—at least children over 3. But regardless of content, the balance in children’s lives between screen time and time for anything else has gone spectacularly awry. It’s urgent that we set it right.
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Commercialism Corner

Introducing: “The Commercialism Corner," your one-stop shop for quick summaries and links to all the latest about the commercialization of childhood complied by CCFC’s researcher extraordinaire, Shara Drew.  Be sure to check back often for the latest news. Here's your first installment:

NERF: Hasbro's Play in the Toy Arms Race – Capitalizing on the amount of time boys spend engaged with violent video games, Hasbro moves toward a more “military style of play” with new line of NERF guns modeled after assault weapons. CCFC’s and TRUCE’s Diane Levin weighs in.

Wired and Tired – Studies show TV watching, video game play, texting and other screen activities are interfering with teens’ sleep, which has negative effects for their well-being.  One doctor looks at the evidence and says, "From a public health standpoint, I look at this and I am scared stiff.”,0,6091440,full.story

Retailers Hold Black Friday-style Summer Sales for Christmas Shoppers – Retailers, including Toys R Us, hold “Christmas in July” sales in an attempt to kick off the consumer craze of the holidays—especially around purchasing toys—“when they least expect it.”

Energy Drinks Pose Serious Health Risk to Kids – And editorial in Canada’s leading medical journal about the negative health effects of energy drinks on children calls on the federal government to regulate the marketing of these products to children.

Brazil: Limits on Food Ads Shake Market Forces
– This blog post reviews the debate surrounding the recent federal ruling in Brazil that will require foods high in saturated fats, transfats, sugar and sodium to carry cigarette-like package warnings about the health risks associated with consuming large quantities of such foods.

Chairman: FTC Leans Toward 'Do Not Track' Registry
– The Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz told the Senate Commerce Committee—many members of which express being “spooked out” by data collection and behavioral marketing online—that the FTC is considering a “do not track” registry akin to the “do not call” registry as part of its fall report on privacy.  Leibowitz stopped short of calling for legislation, and said that while internet users are unlikely to use the registry, its availability would offer “reassurance.” Ad Age registration required.

Marketing ‘Tron: Legacy’ Brings the Hardest Sell Yet – Disney’s extraordinarily long 3-year marketing campaign for this Fall’s Tron: Legacy now includes talking action figures with digitally projected faces, and a move to turn marketing attention to those who can “make or break” a blockbuster: mothers and children.

Got a commercialism news tip? Email the link and short story description to shara(at)
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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

And so it begins: Elmo, my daughter and me

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were forced to confront the fact that our twenty-month-old daughter knows who Elmo is. And she likes him.

For a while, Clara has been saying something that sounded a lot like Elmo. But we convinced ourselves that she was saying “MoMo,” the name of one of her stuffed animals; for parents in denial, toddler enunciation has its benefits. But when my wife dropped Clara off at daycare and she pointed to another child’s box of diapers and enthusiastically announced “Elmo,” we couldn’t fool ourselves any longer. Despite our best efforts, commercial culture has already made a considerable impression on our young daughter. That night, when my wife gently broke the news to me, Clara, who was listening to the entire conversation, began excitedly chanting “Elmo” once again.

It was clear by the look on her face that she liked him and why wouldn’t she? It was Clara’s demographic that the child development experts at Sesame Workshop had in mind when they promoted Elmo from a bit player on Sesame Street to its undisputed star. And it is Elmo’s undeniable appeal to younger children that makes him the engine of Sesame’s marketing machine.

A search at for “Sesame Elmo” results in more than 2,700 products, nearly 3 times the Big Bird offerings and 9 times the Grover paraphernalia. There are, of course, the whole line of Tickle Me Elmo dolls (including Barbie Loves Tickle Me Elmo), but there are also Elmo DVD’s, Elmo video games, Elmo backpacks, every kind of Elmo apparel you could imagine, Elmo’s Punch, Earth's Best Sesame Street Organic Elmo Noodlemania Soup, Elmo cake pans, Elmo soap, Elmo steering wheel covers, Elmo sofas, Elmo humidifiers and more.

We’ve avoided all of the above – no screen time or products with licensed characters for Clara – but in the end her introduction to the cynical world of kiddie marketing came, from all things, a diaper. It reminded me of what punk rock legend Ian MacKaye said a couple of years ago shortly after becoming a father:

I am, of course, disgusted by mass marketing to children. You can imagine my horror when I discovered that it’s virtually impossible to buy a diaper—which is essentially a s**t bag—without a goddamn corporate cartoon figure on it. It’s deeply disturbing.
It is deeply disturbing. What justification could there possibly be for advertising on a diaper, other than its profitable for companies like Sesame when kids eat, play, sleep, and yes, even go to the bathroom, in their brands? Never mind that the diapers promoting Sesame Street are for babies as young as newborns (we were given a pack free at the hospital) when the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two. In 2005, when Sesame Workshop announced its new partnership with Pampers, a Sesame executive gushed, “We are excited to be able to extend the effectiveness of our brand.” In our house, we use another company’s plain brown diapers, but that hasn’t stopped Sesame from extending its brand to my daughter.

So what’s the big deal? I could tell you how my wife and I would like to make the decision about when and if to introduce Clara to Sesame’s media empire on our terms. Or that we don’t want Clara lusting after toys that do back flips or food because of who’s on the package.

But what it really comes down to this: I hate the fact that someone would exploit Clara’s capacity to love and trust, that Elmo might have an ulterior motive for captivating my daughter. The primary message that merchandising stars like Elmo impart to young children is that to love is to consume. And while that may be the kind of love that our economy runs on, I was really hoping we had a little more time before we had to deal with all this stuff.

After all, she’s still in diapers.
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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Family doctors debate if they should take Coke money, after they took it

In this week's Health Blog, the Wall Street Journal's Katherine Hobson asks readers to chime in on a "debate" among family doctors over the ethics of corporate sponsorship of medicine.

But first, the backdrop. Last year, the American Academy of Family Physicians announced "a new corporate partnership program" and its first partner was to be The Coca-Cola Company. Soon thereafter, about 20 doctors resigned from the organization in protest, drawing attention to the matter by Food Politics author Marion Nestle as well as advocacy groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

The grant amount was described as being in the "strong six figures" by AAFP. Here is how the group described the partnership in its October 2009 press release:
The Consumer Alliance is a program that allows corporate partners like The Coca-Cola Company to work with the AAFP to educate consumers about the role their products can play in a healthy, active lifestyle. As part of this partnership, The Coca-Cola Company is providing a grant to the AAFP to develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for, an award-winning consumer health and wellness resource.
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Monday, July 19, 2010

One Family's Bold Experiment: A Year Without Disney

Earlier this year, CCFC was ejected from its home at the Judge Baker Children's Center (JBCC.) Judge Baker’s decision to end its affiliation with CCFC came after representatives from the Walt Disney Company contacted the Center following CCFC’s successful campaign to persuade Disney to offer refunds on its Baby Einstein videos. The story touched a nerve with many of our supporters, including Lisa Ray -- activist, blogger, mother, and founder of Parents for Ethical Marketing:

What kind of a country do we live in, I thought at the time, where a multi-billion dollar corporation can encroach upon a tiny advocacy organization and the people who work for it? Is the family friendly Disney so ruthless that it must control public criticism? Who else is at risk for speaking out against corporations?

Thinking out loud I said to my family, “I wish we could boycott Disney. But I don’t think we can. They’re too big.”

My 12-year old heard me and suggested we should at least try. Her thought: “A year without Disney.”

A year without Disney? Is it really possible in this day and age, given the ubiquity of Disney’s vast media empire? I asked Lisa more about her family’s decision to forgo the Mouse for a entire year.

Q: I love the fact that the impetus for a Year Without Disney was, in part, your (and your daughter’s) reaction to the story of CCFC’s eviction from Judge Baker Children's Center. What was it about the Disney/JBCC/CCFC story that upset you so much?

A: I was upset that Disney chose to defend themselves publicly instead of engaging in the conversation. I was upset that Disney chose to offer those refunds but refused to say that that had made a mistake. But I was most upset that they would unleash their corporate lawyers in order to squelch any attempt at criticism. I felt violated, as a CCFC supporter. I mean, who does that? How is that even a good business practice? And it says a lot about the power of corporations in our society today. It scares me.

Q: I know your concerns about Disney began long before the events of last fall. Can you talk about which aspects of Disney’s marketing machine trouble you the most?

A: Several things. I'd say its presence everywhere. You cannot get away from Disney. The way other companies buy into the licensing because they know that Disney characters sell, so when you are buying for kids, there are always items with the latest Disney character slapped on it. As the mother to two girls, it was especially hard to avoid the Disney princesses on everything. My youngest adored them (she did not know who they were so only called them "the three ladies”), but when we started seeing them show up in the grocery store, that's when we instituted the "no licensed character" rule in our house. Don't get me started on the roles of girls (helpless) and women (nasty/cruel) in the princess stories. Last, I'd say I don't like how Disney has co-opted and altered stories. So many families don't know that many Disney stories are not original and that the true stories have so much more depth and meaning. (Those are some of the things we're hoping to uncover over the year.)

Q: You’ve said that you didn’t think you could boycott Disney because they were “too big.” And in the course of preparing for YWOD, you’ve discovered they were even bigger – your website includes a pretty impressive list of all the properties that Disney owns. Were you surprised by any of it? What’s going to be the hardest to give up?

I was surprised by the number of online properties they have ( Really?). The movies will probably be the hardest, along with Hulu. But I really see it as an opportunity to look deeper for something else to watch.

Q. When CCFC launched a campaign around the Unilever Axe/Dove hypocrisy, many people were surprised to find out that these brands were owned by the same corporation. And some even argued that even if they were they were, Dove and Axe were separate brands that had nothing to do with each other. Why is important to make the connection between a corporations various brands and properties?

Just some random thoughts here. Profits are still made by the parent company, so separate brands have a lot to do with each other, even though they may have different audiences. The bigger issue for me, for Disney at least, is to realize that we won't get a diversity of options if Disney owns the magazines, the television stations, the radio stations, the websites, the book publishers. And with all that money behind them, smaller companies don't have a chance to compete in their marketing world. So again, we have to put so much effort into finding anything else.

Q: What do you hope to learn from your Year Without Disney? What do you hope your children gain from the experience?

I don't really have any expectations for what I hope to learn. I'm trying to remain open. For my girls, they've already learned how to find out what company makes a product (since we've had to check everything in our house, practically). They learned just how many things one company can own and how that affects the variety of entertainment opportunities they're offered. I hope they learn that they can survive -- and maybe even thrive -- by doing without something.

Q. It’s been two weeks without Disney so far. How’s it going? Any surprises? Anyone feel they’ve missed out on anything?

We had been talking about this for a couple months beforehand so some of our boycott started earlier. We had to send back one Netflix movie without watching it. At a family gathering, someone suggested the kids go to a movie and I had to talk quickly to steer away from the Toy Story 3 discussion. Probably the most difficult is the rule that the kids do not need to follow the boycott while at friend's homes. My 8-year-old ended up watching quite a bit of Hannah Montana at someone else's house, and when I picked her up she told me she felt guilty (both for violating the screen time rule and for watching Disney). That certainly wasn't my intent and I felt absolutely awful. So we've had more discussions about differences at other people's homes.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

I hoping that others will join me! At lease to eliminate some Disney in their lives and report back on how it is going.

To follow Lisa's family's progress, cheer them on, or let them know how you've downsized the mouse from your life, vist You can also contact Lisa at lisa(at)

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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Should We Care if Cher Swears? The FCC, Indecency, and Marketing to Children

The news that a federal appeals court struck down a Federal Communications Commission indecency policy reminded me of the whole Justin-Timberlake-ripping-Janet-Jackson’s-blouse-off-during-the-Super-Bowl debacle a few years ago. Tens of thousands of people called the FCC to complain, which is what spurred the agency to crack down on indecency.

A few months after the Super Bowl, in a presentation to the Network of Spiritual Progressives, I expressed concern that a lion’s share of the outrage was voiced by people identified with the country’s Religious Right. Progressives, who tend to support sex education in schools, often stay away from voicing outrage about how sex is marketed to children in the media. I don’t really understand why. After all, it’s possible to be simultaneously for thoughtfully educating kids about sex, and opposed to child-targeted, commercialized sexualization in which sex is represented not in the context of caring relationships, but in the context of power, commodification, and violence.

Here’s the thing. Around 6.6 million 2 to 11 year olds watched a white man rip a blouse off of a black woman—an act that was certainly indecent both for its racist and its sexist connotations. We all should have been complaining about that. And we should have expanded our complaints to include all of those Super Bowl beer ads featuring talking animals. It’s indecent to market alcohol to children.

I absolutely believe that companies have the right to make any kind of media using any kind of language or imagery they choose. But I’m not alone in believing that corporations should not have the right to bypass parents and target children with marketing for whatever it is they produce. That’s why thousands of concerned adults are participating in CCFC’s campaign to convince Nickelodeon to stop marketing its website—which features a selection of violent and sexualized games—to children.

The FCC was trying to address what’s called “fleeting expletives,” which include unacceptable utterances by celebrities like Cher and Bono during prime time television. The court ruled that the FCC’s policy was too vague and would have a “chilling effect” on the First Amendment. Julius Genachowski, the FCC Chairman, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that “the Commission was reviewing the court’s decision in light of our commitment to protect children, empower parents, and uphold the First Amendment.”

The government could do that by not worrying so much about an occasional celebrity uttering an occasional obscenity during a televised award ceremony. If, for instance, the marketing of violent or sexualized PG-13 movies to preschoolers were prohibited, that would certainly protect children and empower parents, and it wouldn’t interfere in the rights of companies to make those movies—or the rights of adults to see them. What would really protect children from large amounts of inappropriate content, and the First Amendment, is if marketing to children were regulated. Commercializing childhood is much more indecent than a *.* fleeting expletive.

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

Happy Meal Lawsuit Update: Is McDonald's Playing Games with Nutrition Facts?

Last week I blogged about how the Center for Public Interest (CSPI) is threatening a lawsuit against McDonald's for using toys to promote Happy Meals to kids. Since then, McDonald's has responded, sort of. In a letter apparently fed to the press even before CSPI got to see it, McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner attempts to "set the record straight:"
We have a long history of working with responsible NGOs who are interested in serious dialogue and meaningful engagement; and we are open to constructive feedback.
Really? Like how McDonald's worked with those two activists in the UK by suing them for libel in the 1990s for putting out a simple brochure? The case (dubbed McLibel) spawned a book and a movie and became notorious for being the longest English trial ever, not to mention the stupidest public relations move short of New Coke.

Skinner continues to dig his own grave:
Ronald McDonald also serves as an ambassador for children's well-being, promoting messages around physical activity and living a balanced, active lifestyle.
Right. That must explain why an entire campaign was launched in March by Corporate Accountability International to Retire Ronald based on an investigation that showed how the clown's main job is to promote McDonald's unhealthy foods, in schools and just about anywhere children can be found.

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Friday, July 9, 2010

Save Cheerios Not Children? Why food industry self-regulation just isn’t going to work

When it comes to marketing to children, self-regulation is never going to work, and an article in the Wall Street Journal gets to the crux of why it won’t. Elaine Kolish, vice president and director of the food industry’s Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, told Congress that the voluntary nutritional standards proposed by a group of federal agencies for what could and could not be marketed to children were too strict. "There are very few products, period, that meet these standards, whether they're primarily consumed by adults or children.”

According to the article, Kolish said that, “General Mills Inc. would be unable to gear advertising for Cheerios cereal, with 190 milligrams of sodium per serving, to children because it has more sodium than the standards would allow.”

If Cheerios doesn’t meet public health standards for sodium, shouldn’t the burden be on General Mills to come up with a formula that does, rather than expecting the standards to be lowered to meet its product line? The food industry’s answer is a resounding “No.” The industry’s position is clear—profits trump children’s health. Which is why they shouldn’t be in charge of setting nutrition standards for anyone, let alone children.

The voluntary restrictions proposed by the federal agencies last December were supposed to be made public and available for comment before reaching Congress on July 15th, but that hasn’t happened yet. The reasons for the delay have also not been made public. When and if these voluntary restrictions are put it place, it will be interesting to see if Cheerios makes the list of foods acceptable to market to children.

I’m betting it will. Read more!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Seduced and Abandoned: The Perils of Nostalgia and the Commercialization of Childhood by Susan Linn

I’m not surprised that American Girl dolls are about to be sold a la Webkins with keys to a virtual world—the brand’s fate was sealed when it was sold to Mattel. But the news made me sad.  It’s yet another corporate message to children that their imaginative world—their own creative play—isn’t good enough.  Back in the day, I was rather fond of the dolls. This was before the factory moved to China, before the television shows, the movies, and the designer stores featuring $25 facials for little plastic faces. Okay, I’m a sucker for dolls, but I come by it honestly.  My mother was a sucker for them, too.

My mom died in 1993, when my daughter was four.  Before her death, she purchased Kirsten Larson (the one of Swedish ancestry who gets to wear candles in her hair), to be given to Sasha when she turned six.  Caveat:  Yes, the dolls were expensive, but they were well-made representations of pre-adolescent girls.  They were sturdy enough to last for years and not sexualized in any way. On subsequent birthdays and holidays, my daughter received an outfit or two for her doll from friends and family.  We never bought the books, which seemed formulaic.  We certainly never bought the (very pricey) furniture advertised in the catalogue. My daughter enjoyed playing with Kirsten until she gave up dolls altogether, and I stopped thinking about the brand as she approached adolescence.

Fast forward to the present, and a new, beloved, little girl. “I’d like to buy Marley a really great doll,” I say to my daughter-in-law.  “Terrific,” she says, “But, please, please don’t buy one from American Girl.” “Really?” I say, a bit taken aback. “Well, they’re the ones with that store out at the mall, aren’t they?” she says.  “I don’t want to get her started on all of that stuff,” she explains patiently.  Despite having written a whole book on commercialization and children—to say nothing of directing the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood—I am crestfallen.

So here’s just one of many flaws in the “just say ‘no’” theory of combating the commercialization of childhood:  Our relationship to the things we purchase for children is complicated.  Our childhood loves and longings influence our choices and, for grandparents, the pleasures and pains of raising our own children go into the mix as well. So when we have a deeply positive past experience with a brand connected with our own childhood, or our children’s, we are resistant to thinking critically about the ways that it has changed.  Research shows that brand loyal customers are less likely to notice price hikes, for instance, in the brands to which they are attached. 

We’re resistant to grappling with other changes as well.  Fathers who played with Transformers as kids don’t want to know that the films are too violent for their children. Adults who spent hours of their childhood building structures with Legos are willing to forgive the kits, the fast food promotions, and even the video games.  Marketers, working with psychologists, understand the power of nostalgia to drive sales.  Believe me, I understand it too.    

In a society that sets virtually no limits on how corporations target children, and when ubiquitous screens make it easier than ever to immerse kids in marketing, it’s a challenge even for motivated adults to limit commercialism in children’s lives.  I finally  managed to find a doll my granddaughter loved that came free of movies, websites, TV shows and branded stores—but it took me a long time and a lot of effort.  It turns out that the American Girl brand I remembered so fondly pretty much wiped out the reasonably-well-crafted-non-sexualized-18-inch-doll market.
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Monday, July 5, 2010

McDonald's Facing Potential Lawsuit for Luring Kids With Happy Meal Toys - It's About Time

It was only a matter of time. Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) served McDonald's with a notice of its intent to sue if the fast food giant continues to use toys to promote Happy Meals. (An "intent to sue" letter is a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in some states.) The basis for the potential case is that using toys to market to small children is unfair and deceptive under the consumer protection laws in a number of states.

According to CSPI's letter, McDonald's toy promotions violate the laws of California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Texas, and the District of Columbia. CSPI's litigation director Stephen Gardner explained in a statement that "McDonald's is the stranger in the playground handing out candy to our children. McDonald's use of toys undercuts parental authority and exploits young children's developmental immaturity."
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Thursday, July 1, 2010

How Did PepsiCo's CEO Inflitrate the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Annual Report on Obesity?

Because I tend to focus my attention on news being generated by the major food companies, I don't always pay close attention to the latest scary reports on obesity data. So when the annual report called F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies are Failing America came out this week, I just thought, Oh there's that report again with the awful name, with the same gloomy numbers as last year.

But then I got an interesting email message forwarded from New York University professor and food politics maven Marion Nestle that made me realize I should pay closer attention to this year's report. The email was from Harold Goldstein, executive director of the highly effective non-profit, California Center for Public Health Advocacy. He was questioning how the CEO of PepsiCo was given 2 pages of airtime in the report. What was that? The CEO of a major company contributing to the very facts and figures contained within the 124-page document was offered space to make her case?
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