Pepsi and Walmart: Helping your kids want more junk food

C'mon parents, say it with me: "No." "No you may not." And again, with finality this time, but as calmly as you can: "NO!" Deep breath. "No you may not have toys, junk food and soda."

If you're a Walmart shopper, you'll have to do extra reps of the "no" practice now, as the mega-retailer has made an unusual move in its stores. According to one shopper who wrote into Consumerist (with photos), the Pepsi and Dorito display had been put right in the middle of the toy aisle. (As Consumerist's Meg Marco wrote, "Not at the end of the toy aisle. In the middle of it.") The reader's wife asked the store manager, what the heck? and "was told that this was an order directly from a central office."

We called Walmart's media relations to see if this was, indeed, a nationwide directive. After several hours we received an email indicating that the display is part of what's called the "Family Night Center" -- "which gives shoppers added convenience and savings for family game and movie night activities all in one place -- as evidence by all of those elements combined," a spokesperson wrote us. It's not usually in the toy aisle, but "some stores may have it facing inside the toy department due to layout and space limitations."

On one hand, I could see this as a reason to thank Walmart. No more do we have several separate aisles to avoid! Now we can do it all in one fell swoop. (Yeah, I know, I'm delusional, aren't I?) But the message comes across with a loudness that's deafening: we believe your children will nag you for junk food, and we'll make it easier for them by putting the junk food right next to the other stuff they long for. In the email from Walmart, I was told brightly, "We know moms look for moderation and balance in their planning, so we've also shared links to healthy dip and snack ideas on our site for this program." (Dipping your Doritos into healthy dips doesn't make them good for you, but thank you!)

While this is really insidious, it should be no surprise. The manufacturers of junk food have long realized that the best time and place to market to children is alongside children's entertainment. It's usually limited to television, movies, video games and web sites (I know! So reserved of them!). Bringing it into the places where the buying decisions are made is the sensible (?) next step.

But there's another dimension to this. I hope Walmart merchandising executives haven't been reading the same studies I've been reading: one in particular I've been obsessing about this week comes to mind. It shows that a young person's diet is the best predictor of criminal behavior. Eat mostly junk food, you're more likely to go to jail.

The most interesting (and devilish) part of this study is that it has been presented in the context of whether watching violent cartoons or playing violent video games leads to more criminal behavior. No, the researchers decided; watching cartoons (violent or full of teddy bears and rainbows, didn't matter) led to an increase in caloric consumption: "Each hour increase in television viewing was associated with an additional 167 kilocalories per day," mostly in junk foods, and watching television "is also inversely associated with intake of fruit and vegetables." And that is what leads to violence. Young offenders given vitamin supplements were less likely to become repeat offenders.

So congratulations Walmart: you've furthered the cause of raising a nation of nagging future criminals! And greatly peeved a bunch of parents in the process.

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