CARU's medicine hard to swallow

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The food industry is facing some aggressive new ad rules from the very group that was to save it from heavy-handed government regulation.

The Children's Advertising Review Board is expected to take food companies to task over the truthfulness and fairness of its claims and insure good advertising practices toward kids, and by doing so, help fend off increasingly vocal public and political critics and show that the food business is capable of self-regulation. But there are murmurs in the industry that it is overstepping its bounds and becoming too dictatorial.

Central to the debate is a ruling from CARU over how food ads aimed at children are handled. Specifically it has said that marketers advertising mealtime foods to kids must show the products within "the framework of a balanced meal," which means showing four out of five food groups in the advertising.

That ruling came in response to an ad for Kraft Foods' Lunchables Chicken Shake-Ups and riled the marketer. While Kraft, a big backer of CARU, agreed to modify its ads, it charged that the new requirement is "regrettable" and "rulemaking by adjudication."

Kraft, moreover, suggested CARU abandoned long time multidisciplinary consultation in setting an important ad industry policy. "Given the complexity of nutrition science, this subject clearly deserved broader consultation with CARU supporters and external stakeholders," said a miffed Kraft, warning that requiring "an inordinate number of foods be depicted in advertising representing lunch or dinner" could force advertisers to "depict an overabundance of foods."

The Kraft ruling followed closely an enforcement action by CARU to Burger King, in which it told the fast-feeder that an ad picturing a burger, fries and a soda along with its giveaway toys must also show healthier choices eligible for the toys in order to pass CARU review.

Troubling

Some find the confluence troubling. "The two together show CARU ready to use cases to push fundamental policy changes in advertising practices," said advertising attorney Douglas Wood. "Doing so through cases rather than rule-making is a very dangerous road. By using a case to announce a broad reaching rule, some will argue that CARU has eliminated the deliberative process and engaged in rule-making more by fiat than fairness. Without doubt, this will further fuel the debate that CARU has become too aggressive."

CARU last week played down the impact of the decision. Director Elizabeth L. Lascoutx said the case was simply an interpretation of an existing rule made necessary by a new ad. She said it hadn't exercised the rule recently because relatively few ads picture kids in lunch and dinner scenes. "It is not a change in the guideline," she said. While CARU had previously made clear that breakfast ads had to depict three of the five food groups, what was necessary to comply for lunch and dinner hadn't come up before, she said.

The Lunchables ad from J. Walter Thompson, New York, featured the "Lunchables Brigade," three animated superheroes. In the ad, the brigade observes three children eating a lunch of chicken legs and drinks and then zaps the lunch with a phaser, transforming it into Lunchables Chicken Shake-Ups. CARU said it originally questioned whether the spot's final imagery of one of the kids holding a plastic bag with five breaded chicken pieces represented a balanced lunch.

"Children may take away the net impression from the commercial that the chicken component ... by itself, constitutes a balanced meal," said CARU's case report, adding there were also questions about whether the ad left kids sure about what comes in the product, and whether the ad left a false impression that the product was necessarily better than leftovers.

But while some executives have privately expressed frustration with CARU, the food industry, aware that a rift in its ranks could appear politically dangerous, is publicly presenting a united front. "The whole point of a self-regulatory system is that companies need to abide by decisions they don't always agree with," said Kraft Exec VP-Global Affairs Mark Berlind. "If the regulated companies only complied with decisions they agreed with, there wouldn't be much point to having the system."

"I am not upset," said O. Burtch Drake, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, noting that if Kraft is upset it can appeal the decision. Association of National Advertisers President-CEO Robert Liodice said as CARU changes it would be unrealistic not to expect "some level of dissatisfaction." But he maintains the self regulatory system "works brilliantly-and to near perfection."

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