Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Children’s Food Advertising Guidelines Getting Sweet and Sour Reactions

Imagine starting a program promoting the advertising of healthy food and beverage choices among children. Then attract a former director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection to head up the development of the program. After months of study, convince 10 of the largest food and beverage companies to join the self-regulatory program. Sounds all good, right? Not necessarily, say food and consumer advocacy groups.

The new Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, announced by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) on November 15, has received decidedly mixed reviews from government and health advocacy goups.

The Initiative is designed to shift the mix of advertising to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles, according to the CBBB and the NARC. Ten companies, which account for more than two-thirds of food advertising to children, have publicly committed to follow the initiative’s core principles. These companies—which include McDonald’s, Kraft Foods, General Mills, and Coca-Cola—agreed to:

(1) Devote at least 50% of their advertising directed to children to promoting healthier dietary choices and/or to messages that encourage good nutrition or healthy lifestyles;

(2) Limit products shown in interactive games to healthier dietary choices or incorporate healthy lifestyle messages into the games;

(3) Refrain from advertising food or beverage products in elementary schools;

(4) Refrain from engaging in product placement in editorial and entertainment content; and

(5) Reduce the use of third-party licensed characters in advertising that does not meet the Initiative’s product or messaging criteria.

The Initiative resulted from a review of the Guidelines of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), undertaken by NARC and led by Joan Z. (Jodie) Bernstein, former Director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection. The review process brought together more than 40 leading children’s advertisers. In addition to the Initiative, the review produced a revision of the CARU Guidelines to cover (1) advertising that is “unfair” in addition to advertising that is misleading, (2) advertising that obscures the line between editorial content and (3) advertising messages in interactive games. http://www.cbbb.org/initiative/

The Initiative was welcomed by FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. “I am highly encouraged by the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ initiative on children’s food and beverage advertising, and I commend the Council for taking these important steps,” Majoras said. The new program “shows real promise and I hope will encourage more competition in developing and marketing healthier products that are attractive to kids and their parents.” http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2006/11/majorasstatement.htm

Others have not been so positive. “Any junk food advertiser who feared that a rewrite of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s voluntary guidelines would force a significant change in the way companies do business can rest easy,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “While the Council of Better Business Bureaus labored like an elephant, it came forth with a mouse.”

“The industry’s definition of ‘healthy’ includes sugary breakfast cereals, for instance,” he said in a statement posted on the health advocacy group’s website. “If a ‘healthy lifestyle message’ means that Ronald McDonald is pedaling a bike while peddling junk food, that message still does more harm than good. It’s a joke.”

Mr. Jacobson expressed hope that Congress will take a fresh look at the industry’s advertising practices. “In the meantime, junk food marketers should expect more lawsuits—not praise—from health advocates.” http://www.cspinet.org/new/200611141.html

In a November 17 news release, the group lauded the efforts of British regulators, who have recently prohibited junk-food marketers from advertising on programming aimed at kids under 16.

Commercial Alert, a consumer group, agreed with those sentiments. “Self-regulation is just another word for letting the fox regulate the chicken coop, which of course leads to dead chickens,” said Executive Director Gary Ruskin. “Self-regulation has been a key ingredient in the childhood obesity epidemic. It is the problem, not the solution. The childhood obesity epidemic will continue until Congress passes tough new laws against marketing to children. Self-regulation is no substitute.” http://www.commercialalert.org/news/news-releases/2006/11/

Senator Tom Harkin (D, Iowa) took a stance somewhere between the FTC and the advocacy groups. “If employed successfully, this could be a good first step,” he said. “But the program leaves companies significant leeway to continue marketing unhealthy foods to kids. And, ultimately, the new initiative is only as good as the enforcement.”

While supporting the effort, Harkin encourage more companies to “go beyond the 50 percent benchmark and use all of their creativity, resources, and marketing practices to help improve the health of our nation’s children,” Harkin said. “Ultimately, Congress will examine this issue closely. As the Institute of Medicine urged in its report last year, government has a responsibility to foster the development and promotion of healthful diets and lifestyles for our kids.” http://harkin.senate.gov/news.cfm?id=265855

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