Ahead Of The Law

Advertising makes people fat. It drives up the cost of prescription drugs. It can harm children and is often indecent.

You may not believe all (or any) of this. But some people do, and their claims may be the focus of federal and legislative efforts to curb advertising in 2005. For marketers, it’s worth getting prepared.

Take junk food. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, has proposed guidelines on how food and drinks that are of dubious nutritional value to children should be marketed.

Each day, kids are exposed to some 58 individual commercial messages on TV, about half of which are for fast food, cookies, candy and soda, the CSPI claims. Its guidelines propose that only foods with less than 30 percent of calories from fat, less than 10 percent from saturated and trans fat, and less than 25 percent from added sugars be marketed to kids. It even suggests guidelines for salt.

CSPI sent the guidelines to major food companies and TV stations on Jan. 5 and asked them to comply on a voluntary basis. The American Advertising Federation called the guidelines “irrational” and “excessively restrictive.”

Yes, people should watch their diets. But the food industry can help by cleaning up the additives in packaged goods. And there are hopeful signs. As food manufacturers try to appeal to parents concerned about childhood obesity, we are starting to see reduced-sugar Cocoa Puffs, sugar-free Pillsbury cookie dough and calcium added to Hershey’s syrup and fish crackers. It’s a start.

In its last session, Congress introduced two bills that would have restricted food ads. One, from Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, suggested that the Federal Trade Commission be given the authority to restrict ads targeting children. Although those efforts did not make progress, expect some form of anti-obesity legislation targeting ads to be introduced in this session.

Prescription-drug ads are a tricky problem, too. Even though John Edwards, a big supporter of restricting such ads, is not returning to the Senate, some key lawmakers, like Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, remain who are committed to the cause.

Two issues prompt concern among lawmakers—that ads drive up the cost of healthcare and that they encourage people to ask their doctors for medicine that may prove harmful. The first of these will be further scrutinized, particularly considering how much play the issue of importing drugs from Canada got in the election. Congress might even find it reasonable to conclude that if the Food and Drug Administration’s safety standards are lax when it comes to medicines like Celebrex, we don’t need ads for such drugs until we clean up the approval process.

Then there are the proposed Federal Communications Commission rules regarding ads on children’s programming. Under the current rules, there can’t be more than 10.5 minutes of ads per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour during the week. The FCC wants to count promos of upcoming shows as commercial messages. Advertisers say that could limit the amount of ad time available, thus driving up rates.

Finally, indecency and moral values are also having an effect on advertising. Lawmakers are poised to revive legislation that would increase the penalties for broadcast indecency. So far, advertisers have been lucky, as the FCC focused its attention on programming rather than ads after last year’s Super Bowl. But ads are not immune. Advertisers and stations could both be fined for any ad broadcast that is deemed indecent by the FCC. In fact, the FCC did examine complaints about some of the ads in last year’s Super Bowl but decided against issuing any fines.

Don’t look for crotch-biting dogs or flatulent horses in this year’s Super Bowl. But do keep an eye on Washington as 2005 rolls on. You never know when the next curve ball is coming.