Industry Under Pressure to Make Changes to Children's Advertising

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WASHINGTON ( –- Concerned that infighting among marketers threatens to derail a planned overhaul of the self-regulatory rules governing the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, its parent agency, the Council of Better Business Bureaus, is taking over.

Acknowledging that the task force established to recommend changes to CARU's rules hasn’t worked quickly enough and that more head-butting will be necessary to get something accomplished, Steven J. Cole, president-CEO of the CBBB, named Jodie Bernstein, a former Federal Trade Commission director of bureau of consumer protection, to oversee the process.

“I took this action as a management decision,” Mr. Cole said. “It’s a way to get a recommendation that will not depend on unanimity,” he said.

New rules in three to four months
The goal is to draft new rules within three to four months. “Everything is on the table,” Mr. Cole said.

Mr. Cole said he grew fearful that that marketing industry, which is under from Capitol Hill for how food products are marketed to children, isn’t doing enough to re-examine its basic philosophy for the CARU guidelines. Instead, the industry has been focusing too narrowly on creating guidelines regarding product placement, "advergaming" and the use of cartoon characters. Some CARU guidelines have been in effect for 30 years.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and officials from the Center for Science in the Public Interest have criticized CARU for focusing on the minutiae of what’s in an ad without looking at the bigger picture of whether products marketed to children are even healthy. The criticism has been intensifying since the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies of Science in a report said that marketing could be a factor in the rising rate children’s obesity.

“The debate between the relationship of advertising to these health issues is not going away and we are under criticism for not going far enough,” he said. “It’s time to get out front and propose something, and we wanted to be proactive,” but he made no promises changes will result.

Trade groups object
Trade groups for the food industry have argued that limiting food advertising is unconstitutional and unwise because defining a “healthy” food is difficult and parents, not children, are the ultimate target of food ads. They’ve also said any food can be part of a healthy diet if consumed as part of an appropriate meal plan.

Mr. Cole and Jim Guthrie, president-CEO of the National Advertising Review Council, which supervises CARU, said some major food manufacturers are developing “best practice” marketing statements that could be incorporated into a new CARU code.

Mr. Guthrie said the NARC board supports the review of CARU's guidelines. “We launched an initiative in July in response to suggestions from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and as we progressed it became clear that all our guidelines are interrelated and need to reflect the changing environment and the full range of marketing issues,” he said.

The FTC has also called for a re-examination of CARU’s guidelines. “This is the type of initiative we hoped the industry would undertake but the proof will be in the results,” said Lee Peeler, the FTC's deputy director.

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