Activists’ self-serving “studies” and “reports” have become a conventional tool in today’s sophisticated anti-business campaigns. Often funded by cause-oriented private foundations and released through academic institutions, these studies are routinely circulated through the media.

We’ve seen two instances of this approach recently in the crusade against food and beverage companies. The Rudd Center at Yale University published a report on trends in the cereal industries’ advertising to children. The report’s message is that while the nutritional value of cereal may be improving, the “level” of advertising to children is not. Rudd credits the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as the report’s primary financial sponsor.

The apparent implication is that advertising for “kid-friendly” cereals should be banned, or at least monitored and controlled. Move over big brother, sugar nannies are coming to town.

While the potential unintended consequences of such efforts come to mind, it is not even clear that such efforts’ intended consequences will occur.  For starters, the links between advertising and consumption, and between consumption and obesity, are unclear at best. There will always be outside influences that parents and cereal companies cannot manage, and for which few studies control.

But more importantly, what happens if these companies do not comply with the activists’ requests? Will the sugar nannies then demand that we fork over our food choices to government, or allow government to monitor what we are exposed to on television?  Because it is not at all clear that government bureaucrats know what is and what is not “healthy.” Under the USDA’s now defunct food pyramid, which endured for 19 years, a daily serving of three cups whole milk and 8 oz. of hamburger were permissible.

Efforts to curb advertising to children make us feel like the problem is being solved, when no data exists on the cost effectiveness of such campaigns. Like “plain packaging” policies, we can’t be sure that these efforts work, nor that activists will not attempt to expand their use when a new product comes into disfavor, like red meat, or soda.

Nonetheless, public health activists relentlessly demonize product promotion. Another recent paper from the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Public Health Advocacy Institute finds nefarious profit motives in soda companies’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns. ”Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?” argues that companies’ philanthropic efforts attempt to capitalize on youths’ desire to support ethical entities.  The paper further argues that healthy lifestyle educational programs unduly blame consumers for their role in the consumption process, and “reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers’ ‘bad’ behavior.” The notions that  the soda industry should not associate itself with anything positive, or that consumers bear no blame for their actions, imply that soda is an inherently bad product, even though any product, with adequate misuse, can be dangerous.

Education aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles doesn’t strive to absolve companies from blame, it builds on the obvious: so long as these products are legal, consumers are ultimately responsible for choosing what to buy and how much to consume. Educational efforts seek to empower the consumer to make good choices, and can be geared towards children and adults, as it is (lest we forget) parents who make purchasing decisions.

Perhaps these activist groups’ endowments would be better spent on similar educational efforts rather than on studies disparaging advertising–studies whose proposed solutions’ effectiveness is circumspect. Educational campaigns empower consumers while preserving companies’ rights to truthful commercial speech and ability to engage in CSR programs.  In other words, the finger-wagging should be exchanged for pointing out healthy choices.