General Mills’ New PSAs: Providing a Public Service or Selling Sugary Cereals?

General Mills recently unveiled a major, "nonbranded" TV "health advertising initiative," which is designed to reach 80 percent of our nation’s kids to convince them they they should begin their days with breakfast.

But I can’t help but wonder: Are these new, fast-paced, movie-trailer-like spots really just clever marketing gimmicks that barely hide the food giant’s underlying goals — which are to get more children to eat more and more of their sugar-loaded, nutritionally deficient cereals as Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Trix?

At first blush, General Mills’ "Choose breakfast" message is a positive one. After all, a number of studies show that kids who eat nutritious breakfasts behave better, are more emotionally functional, get higher grades, eat less at lunch, and are less hyperactive.

In fact, the company’s press release cited one such breakfast study from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Applied Research and Education Achievement, which found that kids eating a nutritious breakfast got better test scores and 50 percent less discipline problems.

But, let’s face it, folks, the types of morning foods that lead to the greatest benefits in behavior, concentration, and weight are nutritious, low-glycemic, fiber-rich, and contain no or little added sugars. Certainly a bowl or two of a sugary cereal, topped with a splash of milk, just doesn’t cut it as the ideal way to begin the day.

However, the Golden Valley, Minn.-based General Mills is clearly seeking to position itself as the model corporate citizen, especially when it purports that the new, 10-second spots are designed "to motivate kids… to make sure they start the day… with a great breakfast."

Absolutely, "a great breakfast" is the way to go every day — as in what I had this morning (1/2 organic grapefruit, vegetable omelette with 1 full egg and 1 egg white, prepared in a little olive oil, 1 slice of Health Seed Spelt Bread from French Meadow Bakery. And I’m thinking mighty clearly now, thanks to that meal.)

Which is it? Ad or Public-Service Announcement?

Here’s how confusion could be generated in impressionable kids’ minds: General Mills is running the 10-second public service, "Choose Breakfast" spots in rotation with 20-second ads for such "kid-oriented cereal brands" as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Trix.

How does this work? OK, say a kid sees the "Choose Breakfast" spot. Then immediately afterwards, this same child sees an ad for, say, Cocoa Puffs.

Now, does Cocoa Puffs sound like the perfect breakfast? I daresay it’ll be tough for you to find a nutritionist who tells her clients to eat just that.

By the way, if you look at the cereal’s ingredients label, even though one cup of the processed grains do contain some vitamins, it also contains 26 grams of carbs — 13 grams of which are sugar — and only 1 gram of fiber.

Isn’t it obvious that children seeing first a public-service difference and then a bona fide General Mills cereal will draw the conclusion that the best way to "think fast," have power," and "get going" — as the "Choose Breakfast" spot urges — is to grab a bowl of sweetened Trix.  (Incidentally, the whole grain version has only one gram of fiber, 13 grams of sugar and 12 grams of other carbs.)

Bonnie Liebman, nutrition director for the Washington-D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest asked the obvious.

"Are kids going to realize the 20-second commercial ended and the 10-second [public-service] spot began?"

Good question.

An initial Associated Press story, followed up by another, raised these same questions.

As General Mills spokeswoman Marybeth Thorsgaard told e-Diets.com, the company is just trying to get kids to eat breakfast in the morning.

"We are advertising ‘Choose Breakfast,’ " she said. "We are not talking about cereal or a specific kind of breakfast."

Oh, please.

"How can we possibly believe that?" Marion Nestle, M.D., M.P.H., who heads the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, told e-Diets.com. "These companies don’t do public service announcements.

"These have to be ads for their own cereals," adds Nestle, author of the influential, eye-opening book, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (on sale here).

Actually, I’m almost amused by the reaction of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) of the Council of Better Business Bureaus to the new General Mills’ spots. The group hailed the campaign as "exactly what a leader in the food industry should be doing. (Come again?)

"Ensuring that positive, nonbranded health messages like `Choose Breakfast’ are being delivered to children is not only responsible, but commendable," asserted Elizabeth Lascoutx, vice president and director of CARU.

Excuse me? Commendable to indirectly (albeit subtly) equate Trix with a "good breakfast"? I don’t buy it.

The Public Health Advocacy Institute Blog offers a compelling comment about the profit motive that’s likely driving General Mills.

"Let us not forget the foundation of corporate motive clearly spelled out in the canonical Dodge v. Ford Motor, 204 Mich. 459 (1919)," the organization urged:

"`A business corporation is organized and carried on primarily for the profit of the stockholders. The powers of the directors are to be employed for that end. The discretion of directors is to be exercised in the choice of means to attain that end, and does not extend to a change in the end itself, to the reduction of profits, or to the nondistribution of profits among shareholders in order to devote them to other purposes.`"

The "Choose Breakfast" spots might be nice to view (see this, this, and this) and the website might even be tastefully done, but as usual, a major food company’s profit motives are at odds with the health — and quickly bulging waistlines — of our nation’s children.

All this goes to show how important it is for parents to subtly instruct their kids on the virtues of a bona fide breakfast.

Tune in soon for tips on helping your kids to begin with a better breakfast. In the meantime, check out the book, Little Sugar Addicts from Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D. for ideas on weaning them off sweets.

Sugar was once my go-to "drug." Now, I'm an ex-sugar-addicted journalist. ALL 44 of my baffling ailments vanished after I reluctantly kicked the sweet stuff and quickie carbs in 1998. Now, I’m author of the expose, Sugar Shock (Berkley Books, 2006) and Beyond Sugar Shock (Hay House, 2012), which gives you a simple, proven plan to kick sweets. My next book, Crush Your Crazy Cravings™ -- which I'm now completing -- will give you easy, tested tools to squash your cravings for sugar, salt and fatty foods. I’m also a motivational speaker, certified life coach, certified health coach, media guest, and Gab with the Gurus host. I'm also organizer for the upcoming Sugar World Summit. Let’s connect on social media!

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