Are Animal Crackers Headed for Extinction?

Proposed guidelines on advertising food to kids under fire

WASHINGTON—Animal crackers could be headed for extinction—that, at least, is the warning from industry representatives about a series of guidelines for marketing to children currently under consideration.

At a forum Tuesday, representatives from several food, beverage, and advertising associations spoke out against the proposed guidelines, which were authored by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, a joint project of the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The guidelines would be voluntary, but would restrict advertising targeting children under 17 on TV and radio and in print as part of the government's goal to reduce obesity in children. They would also curtail marketing and promotional activity aimed at selling food products to children—everything from websites to displays in grocery stores, product placement in movies, character licensing, toy co-branding, even sponsorships of events and sports teams, and celebrity endorsements. 

But industry representatives don't see the guidelines as truly voluntary; they feel they can't ignore these guidelines because they've been proposed by the agencies that regulate them.

"This is a classic case of backdoor regulation," Dan Jaffe, who heads up government relations for the Association of National Advertisers, said at the forum. "These four powerful agencies that have put forward this proposal have sweeping oversight of the food, beverage, and restaurant industries. Can anyone doubt that these proposals are not 'voluntary' but thinly veiled government commands?"

Each speaker had three minutes to comment, which wasn't much considering the scope of the issue, but the lines were clearly drawn anyway. Those who represented the health community were staunchly in favor of the guidelines as a way to tackle the problem of obesity among America's children. Every single representative from the food, beverage, restaurant, and advertising industries called for the guidelines, which they characterized as "overreaching," to be withdrawn.

Many products considered to be "healthy" would not fall under the new nutrition principles, said Scott Faber, vice president of federal affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "Limiting marketing of healthy foods, including most yogurt, soups, vegetable juices, and many cereals . . . will not help Americans identify healthier options and build healthy diets," he said.

Speaking out in favor of the proposed guidelines, the health community painted a bleak picture of the effects of advertising and marketing on nutrition choices for children. "They are being hit by food ads at every turn," said Daniel Levy of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But Faber says the IWG did not take into account the progress the industry has already made.

"In recent years, we have changed the recipes of more than 20,000 products to reduce calories, sugar, sodium, and fat and have pledged to annually remove 1.5 trillion calories from commerce by 2015," Faber said.

"We've stepped up to the plate and changed what's on the plate," said Elaine Kolish, vice president of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which includes 17 companies that participate in an industry self-regulatory program, among them Coca-Cola, Campbell Soup, General Mills, and Kraft Foods.

The food and advertising industries will continue to make their case in the coming weeks. "Congress will hear about this. We'll talk to anyone who will listen," said Jaffe.

"There are a number of issues we heard today. I don't know if they'll scrap the guidelines. It would be unusual for the FTC not to make changes," said Mary Engle, associate director of the division of advertising practices for the FTC's bureau of consumer protection.

"No one is trying to assign blame, but advertising is so powerful," Engle said. "Look at PSAs and the success of Smokey the Bear. If marketing can nudge children to eat healthier, that's a good thing. No one wants to take away animal crackers."

Comments on the guidelines are due July 14.