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Food Industry Tweaks Ad Guidelines

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BOSTON Amid an epidemic of childhood obesity and mounting negative press, marketers today said they have significantly strengthened their efforts to self-regulate food and beverage ads targeting kids under age 12.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Council have established the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary program with 10 major companies as charter members.

The initiative is designed to shift the focus of advertising messages to children and encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.

The participating companies are Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Unilever.

All told, those companies account for approximately two-thirds of all food and beverage TV ads aimed at kids.

In addition, the self-regulatory guidelines for children's advertising have been revised in order to strengthen the ability of the CBBB's Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) to provide guidance and oversight to all industry sectors.

Susan Linn, co-founder of the nonprofit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, blasted the efforts as "the clearest indication yet that, when it comes to marketing to children, self-regulation has failed. In the midst of an epidemic of childhood obesity, the industry has proposed a series of guidelines for junk-food advertising that are window dressing at best."

She maintained that the guidelines remain too vague and permissive, and will generate only cosmetic changes in the way marketers go about their business.

Today's initiative evolved from a review led by Joan Bernstein, a former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

"I commend these 10 companies for coming together in a meaningful new program that will have strong oversight," Bernstein said. "These efforts are a great step forward."

FTC chair Deborah Platt Majoras issued a statement praising the changes, saying that they "show real promise, and I hope they will encourage more competition in developing and marketing healthier products that are attractive to kids and their parents. The FTC works closely with a number of self-regulatory programs, and will be watching closely to see whether this program results in meaningful improvements in food and beverage advertising to children."

Under the terms of the new initiative, participating companies will devote at least half of their kid-directed advertising to promote healthier dietary choices and to similarly limit products shown in interactive games. They pledged not to advertise in elementary schools nor engage in product placement in editorial and entertainment content. The companies also said they would curtail the use of third-party licensed characters.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of consumer advocacy group Commercial Alert, dismissed the effort out of hand.

"Junk food marketers are dreaming if they think they can halt tough new laws against marketing to children," said Ruskin, who called on the next Congress to swiftly pass the Parents' Bill of Rights, which, among other provisions, would revoke the federal tax deduction for advertising to children under 12.