Food Marketers Seem Set to Unveil Kids-Advertising Guidelines

Postponement of Obesity Report a Hint That Initiative Details Will Come July 18

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WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- A huge task force report on child obesity is being postponed -- a broad hint that the nation's top food and beverage marketers are planning to unveil major concessions this month in how they market food to kids on TV.
Sen. Sam Brownback
Sen. Sam Brownback

Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced today that the joint kids and obesity task force they formed with Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin and FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate will report in September instead of next week. The reason: It will be outdated due to upcoming initiatives from food marketers to be unveiled at a Federal Trade Commission/Department of Health and Human Services workshop July 18.

"The extension will allow for a more thorough examination of new initiatives that many food and beverage companies are coordinating as well as a more comprehensive look at how all parties, especially the media, can work for the common good," Sen. Brownback said in a statement today.

'Impressive commitments'
Gary Knell, president-CEO of Sesame Workshop, who has been volunteer coordinator of the task force, said he got a clear indication big changes are coming from marketers and a wait to examine them was warranted. "I am led to believe that we will get some impressive commitments from major advertisers," he said. "I am looking forward to dramatic statements on the part of the food companies so we can begin to look at media companies as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem."

The moves add a level of uncertainty to marketers' support of children's TV, but exactly how the changes will affect ad buys remains uncertain. Marketers could alter the nutrition profile of their products or switch kids' ad buys to brands that are more healthful, which would cause minimal disruption in media buying. But they could also focus more of their ads on parents, which would transfer spending to adult-oriented media. Advertisers' moves could also ramp up pressure on TV and cable networks to take their own steps to counter childhood obesity.

The task force was a response to pressure from legislators and several studies questioning whether food and fast-food marketing -- much of it on TV -- was contributing to increasing childhood obesity and whether marketers and media companies were doing enough to halt the epidemic.

That pressure prompted 11 of the country's biggest food marketers to agree last fall for the first time to start taking nutrition into account when they pitch foods to children.

Made health promises
The group unveiled a Council of Better Business Bureaus/National Advertising Review Council initiative and promised to devote at least half their kids' food ads to promoting either healthy messages or healthy lifestyles; limit their use of licensed characters; and take other steps including making specific public pledges of changes. There were few specifics, initially prompting speculation little change would occur.

But then Kellogg Co. announced even more sweeping limits, raising expectations that the industry as a whole will follow suit. The companies' detailed public pledges are now expected to be unveiled at the July 18 workshop.

Elaine Kolish is the director of the initiative marketers have undertaken in conjunction with Council of Better Business Bureaus/National Advertising Review Council and has seen all the pledges that will be outlined at the workshop. She declined to detail them, but offered a hint: "I am very pleased with the direction we are going."

Some consumer advocates were upset that Congress and some FCC commissioners created a task force rather than acting and expressed disappointment with the delay in the task-force report. "From the beginning, I never understood the need for the task force," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We have reports and lots of recommendations. What needs to be done is to do something about it now. "
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