FTC’s Engle Warns Advertisers to Proceed With Caution

NEW YORK While ruling out the possibility of direct action by the Federal Trade Commission, an attorney for the regulatory body today called on advertisers and marketers to overhaul their activities directed towards children.

“Take a page from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and execute an extreme makeover,” Mary Engle, associate director of advertising practices at the FTC told a group of lawyers, marketers and advertisers at a National Advertising Division workshop in New York. Engle stressed that she was speaking for herself as an attorney and the parent of a 7-year-old, not necessarily as a representative of the FTC.

The event, part of Advertising Week, was not specifically about marketing to children. Instead, much of the day was spent outlining the self-regulation process by the NAD, a unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

But Engle said an increasing stream of protests from advocacy groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, the child obesity epidemic and her own feeling that parents have a much tougher time saying no than years ago prompted her to take a stand. “There’s more for parents to say no to than 40 years ago,” she said.

Engle, however, said the FTC will not take action on the matter. The agency took on the issue in 1978 in a program called “Kidvid” that explored the issue of whether to ban advertising to kids too young to understand it as well as ban ads directed towards kids under 12 for products that promote tooth decay. Engle deemed Kidvid a “spectacular failure” and added that while some are calling for Kidvid 2, “I can assure you that the FTC is not going to make that sequel.” Nevertheless, Engle said marketers should follow the lead of Kraft Foods, which promised to stop marketing in schools earlier this year and McDonald’s, which has included sliced apples in its kid-focused Happy Meals.

In the absence of FTC action, Engle spoke in favor of the NAD’s self-regulation. Under that protocol, complaints about alleged marketing violations are reviewed by the group. If the group ruled that an ad is misleading, the marketer can change the ad or appeal the decision.

If the marketer persists in ignoring NAD’s ruling, the group recommends the case to the FTC or another appropriate authority. Last year, the NAD heard about 150 cases, said Martin Zwerling, assistant director of NAD and 95 percent of those addressed complied with NAD’s demands.

Zwerling said most of those cases dealt with technology or food products. Cases among the former include telecom Alltel, which was charged with “unreadable” fine print in an ad, and Nextel, which didn’t disclose uncovered areas in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in an ad. Most cases dealing with the latter addressed what the NAD called “low-carb frenzy.” Among those cases were Nestle’s Carnation Instant Breakfast for the Carb Conscious, which didn’t disclose that with milk the product actually had 24 grams of carbs, which is roughly the daily allowance on diets like Atkins and South Beach; and Tropicana Light ‘n Healthy, which has 17 grams of carbs, though ads had an “implied low-carb message.” Though both marketers opted to change their messaging for those products, the low-carb issue is tricky since the Food and Drug Administration has yet to rule what constitutes “low carb.”

The NAD also showed flagrant violators the group shot down, like Notox, a product that was purported to reverse the effects of alcohol consumption, and Senior Moment, a product that ads claimed reversed memory loss.