Nutrition watchdogs should be pleased. Food companies are spending less money marketing to children and youth, a new Federal Trade Commission report found. Compared to 2006, food marketing targeting 2- to 17-year-olds dropped 19.5 percent to $1.79 billion in 2009.
Most of the decrease came from fewer ads on TV. At the same time, food companies increased by 50 percent spending in new media, such as online, mobile and viral marketing, which are cheaper than TV. Companies have also stepped up integrated marketing and cross-promotion campaigns that combine traditional media with other platforms, from digital to movies to packaging to toy premiums.
For the first time, the report, released today, also analyzed the nutritional profile of foods marketed to youth, finding that self-regulation by the food industry has resulted in "modest nutritional improvements," particularly in heavily-marketed categories such as cereals, drinks and fast-food kids' meals.
The FTC's follow-up report, "A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents," was anticipated for the better part of a year, but the controversy over the federal government's attempt to establish voluntary food guidelines for marketing to children may have sidelined the update. By the end of next year, the 16 member companies of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative—which represents 90 percent of all food marketing to children—committed to stricter nutrition guidelines for children under 12.
"More companies have joined, hundreds of foods have been improved or newly created to meet science-based nutrition criteria, and the CFBAI itself has expanded and become even more rigorous," said Elaine Kolish, director and vp of the CFBAI, which operates under the Better Business Bureau.
While FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz gave due recognition to the food industry's efforts to help reduce the nation's obesity epidemic, he noted that there were still a few food company holdouts and media companies that need to step up.
"The encouraging news is that we're seeing promising signs that food companies are reformulating their products and marketing more nutritious foods to kids, especially among companies participating in industry self-regulatory efforts. But there is still room for improvement. We will look for continued progress by the food industry and greater participation by the entertainment industry," Leibowitz said in a statement.
Some of the food companies that have not joined the CFBAI include Chuck E. Cheese's, Topps Candy, and IHOP. Among media companies, Disney, for example, won accolades for its commitment to adopt strict in-house nutritional standards for children's ads, but Viacom has yet to adopt a similar policy and has often faced criticism from nutrition watchdogs.
Nutrition advocates are still left with plenty to advocate, especially since self-regulation fails to cover the full range of marketing strategies, like packaging and toy giveaways.
"Self-regulation as its currently structured isn't working yet. The CFBAI still doesn't cover packaging and that's the biggest spending category after TV or the toy," said Margo Wootan, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
The Center for Digital Democracy, alarmed at marketing shift towards new digital techniques, such as peer-to-peer viral campaigns and neuromarketing, suggested the FTC convene stakeholders to develop "fair digital marketing practices for children and teens."
Even with a generally positive report, advertisers are bracing for a fight. "This will bring attention back onto the food advertising issue, adding new fuel to the fire for 2013," said Dan Jaffe, evp of the Association of National Advertisers. "The advertising and media community have done more than any other sector to respond to the obesity issue. The question is, what is enough?"
At least one advertising attorney believes the FTC is on shaky ground as it tries to nudge the food and beverage industry to do more. "It's policy-making masquerading as exercising enforement authority…. Companies should not be led to believe that further compromise and cut back on spending and marketing will satisfy the FTC or the food industry critics," said John Feldman, a partner with Reed Smith, in a statement. "They will not be satisfied until there is a ban on kids advertising altogether."
The kids food fight heats up even as there is emerging evidence suggesting that the nation has begun to slowly turn the corner on the nation’s childhood obesity problem. A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that a number of places, including Philadelphia, New York, Mississippi and California, are showing small declines in childhood obesity rates.