4A's goads nets to enter food fight

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The firestorm over food marketers' role in the obesity epidemic is leading the marketing industry to turn on itself.

O. Burtch Drake, president-CEO of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, blasted the TV networks for not doing more to defend food marketing to kids at a government affairs conference last week. "The networks need to get their acts together and participate in this debate," he said at the conference, also attended by members of the Association of National Advertisers and the American Advertising Federation.

Mr. Drake's concern is that the industry's self-regulatory body, the Children's Advertising Review Unit, is getting attacked for insufficient screening of food and fast-food ads without the networks making clear that CARU's screening comes on top of their already extensive screening.

"CARU is getting all the heat" he said. "There is a real lack of awareness [of what the networks do]. The networks aren't getting the credit."

Sen. Tom Harkin does want CARU to do more. "We are exploiting our children," he said. "We are pouring acid on their innocence. ... CARU is an acknowledgement by the advertising industry that irresponsible food marketing to children is a very real problem. But CARU is not cutting it. It has no legal authority, and it has no teeth."

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Last week, food marketers drew a new warning from Sen. Harkin, who told ad groups "a backlash is brewing." CARU, he said, should have the power to fine marketers and believes marketers should eliminate all ads directed to kids under 8 and set age-appropriate standards for kids older than that.

The three ad associations defended CARU and called an earlier charge made by the Iowa Democrat "reckless." Mr. Harkin in a March 16 Capitol Hill press conference criticized food marketers for targeting kids with "junk-food" ads. Shortly before he spoke last week to the conference, the three ad associations released a letter laying out their objection to Mr. Harkin's recommendations. "Much of the criticism of food advertising to children rests on the fundamentally flawed premise that demonizes certain food products," said the letter. "There is nothing inherently unhealthy about foods from quick-service restaurants or cereals or soft drinks or candy ... so long as those products are consumed in moderation."

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