Battle Lines Are Drawn Over What Makes Kids Fat

Armed with a six-figure budget in seed money from four Washington lobbying groups and the participation of three major food marketers, the Alliance for American Advertising now plans to approach at least 20 more companies and associations to beat back the public perception that advertising makes children obese.

With General Mills, Kellogg and Kraft Foods already on board, the alliance has reached out to PepsiCo and would like to recruit Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Magazine Publishers of America, among others. The four lobby groups are the American Advertising Federation, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers and the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

A Pepsi representative confirmed that the company had joined the alliance but declined to disclose how much money it had contributed.

Dick O’Brien, head of the the 4A’s here, said the goal was to “raise at least seven figures” from marketers and associations. The first step the alliance plans to take is to lobby lawmakers against introducing any legislation aimed at restricting food ads aimed at kids. Senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have publically discussed the need for such legislation.

The alliance also plans to launch a public relations offensive to argue that ads are not the problem and that the industry already has a strong self-regulatory arm in the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which polices ads aimed at kids. A proposal to hire a PR firm is under consideration.

Wally Snyder, AAF’s president and CEO, said the alliance needs to trumpet the work done by CARU. “They have investigated 430 ads aimed at children in the last five years and they get a 95 percent success rate in getting companies to agree to make changes in their ads,” Snyder said. When CARU cannot get a company to comply with its guidelines, the matter is sent to the Federal Trade Commission.

Children’s food ads have come under attack from a number of groups. The Kaiser Family Foundation said in a 2004 report that media targeted to children “is laden with elaborate [ad] campaigns, many of which promote foods such as candy, soda and snacks.” The American Psychological Association argues that all advertising to children under 8 is unfair and shouldn’t be allowed. The Center for Science in the Public Interest believes only “good” food should be advertised to children and that it, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, should determine what is a “good” food. And the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, whose members include healthcare professionals, educators and parents, challenged the objectivity of the government’s Institute of Medicine, which held a workshop on marketing to kids last week. Of the 10 invitees, which included Kraft, General Mills and McDonald’s, the group argued that only the KFF has been publicly critical of the industry’s marketing.

At the IOM workshop, a McDonald’s rep said the company’s Ronald McDonald mascot appears at elementary school classrooms with children as young as 4. Some Happy Meal advertising is aimed at 4 to 7 year olds, the rep said. General Mills, Kraft and PepsiCo reps said they target their kids food ads to mostly 6 year olds.

Dan Jaffe, ANA evp of government relations, argued that “Quebec and Sweden have banned all children’s advertising and they still have high obesity rates.”