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Obama Ducks Food Fight Over Children’s Ads

The Chattering Classes on… the Obama administration’s mission to curb marketing of unhealthy food to children. The Federal Trade Commission last week released voluntary principles along with three other separate government agencies regarding food industry marketing to children. The agencies are clear: “This is not a proposed government regulation.” That being the case, how effective will it be?

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The keyword here is “voluntary.” In political terms, it’s more of a friendly peanut toss-and-catch than a fully-fledged food fight in the classroom. As a rule, it’s easier to persuade an industry to take the lead without a lengthy and time-consuming legal process to force their hand. But if earlier self-regulatory programs were not enough, will new industry standards do the trick?

Josh Golin, associate director at the non-profit Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, says voluntary guidelines are not enough. “If it’s up to the companies, we don’t hold out a lot of hope,” he says. “We need a way to enforce these standards. Kids are still bombarded with ads for sugary cereals and fast food on television. There’s also been a huge explosion of marketing on the Internet for kids.”

The Obama administration is deadly serious. It wants companies to meet a series of new nutritional and marketing guidelines by 2016 governing nutrient content including sugar, fats and, of course, sodium. Notably, targets to limit the amount of sodium in food marketed to children have an interim target of 2016 and “final target” of 2021. (Sodium-heavy dishes are a little trickier to re-formulate.)

The non-profit Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest praised the guidelines. Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy, who was instrumental in raising the issue, tells Pay Dirt that regulating food companies would be politically more complicated, but adds, “If this does not work we’ll think about what other approach might work.”

So why the push? The government believes that parents need help. Hence, the FTC, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration all banding together to come up with the guidelines. The FTC says 1-in-3 American children are obese, with higher rates among some racial and ethnic groups; it also says food companies spent $2 billion advertising food to kids in 2008, which includes fast-food toys.

Don’t bet on a U-turn in children’s advertising just yet. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Association of National Advertisers came out fighting with a timely piece of data to coincide with the agencies’ voluntary principles. They released research by Georgetown Economic Services saying the average number of food and beverage ads that children aged 2-11 viewed on kid’s programming was halved between 2004 and 2010.

They contend that many of these changes can be attributed to the 2006 Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory program by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. (The keyword there is “self-regulation.”) Does that research mean enough has been done already? The Grocery Manufacturers Association says it is simply designed to illustrate the progress made thus far.

Scott Faber, a vice-president with the GMA, gives a diplomatic – if non-committal – response to the government’s guidelines. He tells Pay Dirt, “We are in the process of updating the standards that we already apply in marketing to children on the back of the government’s most recent dietary guidelines. We will certainly be considering the principles released yesterday as we complete that review.”

Appropriately, given the nature of its work, the Association of National Advertisers was far more direct. Dan Jaffe, executive vice-president of government relations, said in a statement, “These are sweeping and in our view overly restrictive proposals which become dramatically more restrictive after a five-year phase-in period.”

There is a 45-day public comment period. Pay Dirt readers, whose side are you on?

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    • It seems to me that the government is meddlIng where it shouldn’t be. Is there any empirical scientific evidence that demonstrates a link between marketing food to children and obesity rates? What about limiting ads for playstation or other videogames? Or how about limiting the sales of cars so people have to walk more. It seems much more complicated of an issue than a kid seeing a few ads for Fruit Loops. When I was a kid there were way more ads I think and the foods weren’t anywhere near as healthy as they are today. I ate a lot of Twinkies but you better believe that I played outside everyday!

    • As a business owner and a parent, I can see both sides. I still believe though that as a parent (I have two grade school boys) it is our responsibility to teach our children what is good for you. My oldest already knows that too much fast food is bad for you and has no problem reminding me of that fact. I don’t think we need more regulations in place. Where does the excess regulation end?

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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