Can Focusing On Fitness Lighten Criticism Of Ads?

Kraft Foods plans to insert five-second messages within its 30- second spots for products aimed at kids that encourage fitness and good nutrition. Ronald McDonald gets active and nudges kids to do the same in the latest ad from Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett. And the Ad Council gears up to launch a new campaign this summer to promote healthy lifestyles among kids.

All of this is no accident. Advertisers are increasing under pressure to combat childhood obesity from lawmakers who warn of possible ad restrictions, trial lawyers who threaten deceptive advertising lawsuits, and consumers who say they want healthier choices for their children.

But ads promoting fitness aren’t likely to satisfy the multitudes lining up to take a shot at the marketers of what they see as unhealthy products.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, certainly doesn’t think so. He has introduced a bill that would give the Federal Trade Commision the authority to restrict marketing unhealthy foods and drinks to kids. “In the absence of corporate responsibility, government action is necessary,” he said.

Three such bills—either restricting or studying the effect of ads aimed at those under 18—have been introduced in Congress. In July, the FTC will hold a workshop on marketing to kids and industry self-regulation. The FTC’s key question: What are the roles of the government and the industry when it comes to marketing to kids?

But marketers are not waiting to respond. “Policy makers are driven by the same constituency we are, and that is consumers,” said Mark Berlind, Kraft’s evp of global corporate affairs.

Kraft, which has already said its ads aimed at 6- to 11-year-olds must meet nutritional standards, is including more physical activity in ads, Berlind said. Its new sugar-free Kool-Aid ad shows kids skateboarding.

For the first time at McDonald’s, Ronald is part of a global advertising strategy aimed at communicating the importance of health to kids, said Larry Light, the company’s chief marketing officer. “Right now, the [timely issue on consumers’ minds] is what do I feed my kids, and how do my kids grow up to be healthy,” he said.

A more serious threat comes from trial lawyers who are filing class-action lawsuits against companies under deceptive advertising statutes.

“Advertising foods as low in fat if there are the same number of calories from carbohydrates is deceptive,” said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University’s School of Law in Boston. Daynard, who also directs the law and obesity project there, will meet with lawyers this fall to determine which companies should be sued.

Meanwhile, a Miami lawyer in March filed a class-action lawsuit against Kraft, General Mills Cereals and Kellogg’s, saying low-sugar claims for cereals like Cocoa Puffs and Fruit Loops are deceptive.