A controversial recommendation in a 78-page study released today by the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services calls for marketers to adopt "minimum nutritional standards for the food they market to children" or at least focus marketing on lower-calorie, more-nutritious products.
The agencies didn't identify specific standards for what it considers healthy products, though they noted that the Institute of Medicine of National Academy of Science is developing guidelines for products used in schools. Marketers have opposed limits on advertising, arguing any food can be part of a good diet.
The two agencies held off for now recommending new laws or regulations, saying they were "encouraged" by industry's own recent progress, but the report includes a clear warning that if changes aren't implemented, recommendations will be forthcoming. The industry's advertising guidelines for marketing to kids come from the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. A review of the guidelines is now underway.
"The agencies have concluded that [CARU] should be given a reasonable amount of time to complete its review and develop and implement changes before determining whether to recommend other alternatives," said the report.
Mary Engle, the FTC associate director-advertising practices, said the agencies decided to urge voluntary rather than legislative action because there was a feeling that voluntary moves could happen sooner. "We think that the voluntary action has the ability to be quicker and more effective," she said, suggesting that any advertising regulation imposed could be caught up in court for years over First Amendment challenges.
Product placement an issue
The proposal to limit children's food marketing to "good" products wasn't the only one. The agencies also urged the ad industry to let CARU examine "whether product placement of foods is appropriate" and also the appropriate use of licensed characters in TV, along with product placement in movies, video games and Web sites. The report suggested licensed TV and movie characters should be used only to promote more nutritious products. CARU's guidelines are aimed at products marketed to kids under 13.
It also asks the ad industry to expand CARU's focus to look at nontraditional as well as traditional advertising; to examine the feasibility of creating an independent third-party seal or logo to identify more nutritious, lower-calorie foods that could be used by a number of marketers; and investigate the possibility of CARU being able to impose sanctions, especially for repeat offenders.
Moreover, it calls on food marketers to intensify efforts to create new products and reformulate current ones to make them more nutritious and with fewer calories while increasing their appeal to children. It also asks marketers to facilitate good diets for children by providing smaller portion sizes, single-servings or other steps.
"Responsible, industry-generated action and effective self-regulation are critical to addressing the national problem of childhood obesity," said FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras. "The FTC plans to monitor industry efforts closely, and we expect to see real improvements."
"Businesses need to work with mothers, fathers and children to bring America's epidemic of childhood overweight under control," said HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt.
Advertising and food industry groups were circumspect. "At first blush, it appears fair and balanced," said Dick O'Brien, exec VP of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. He said many of the recommendations for changes were already under discussion within the industry.
Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said the report would get and "extremely thorough and careful review" by the industry.
In a statement, Grocery Manufacturers Association President-CEO C. Manly Molpus also promised GMA and its members "will carefully consider all of the recommendations. While many companies are already engaged in a variety of initiatives, we welcome the agencies' suggestions regarding other ways in which we might be able to have positive impact on the health of all consumers, especially children."
James R. Guthrie, president-CEO of the National Advertising Review Council, which oversees CARU, issued a statement saying NARC is reviewing the recommendations, adding that some recommendations contained in the report had already been implemented.
Harkin wants legislation
Critics of food marketing offered differing views on the report. U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he was "disappointed" it offered only recommendations for voluntary action to an industry he called "largely out of control."
"Current efforts at industry self-regulation through CARU are completely inadequate," he said. "If industry fails at the task of self-regulation, stronger government action will be necessary. Parents are sick and tired of food companies undermining their rules and their values."
But Margo G. Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, praised the report. "It makes some sensible recommendations, which I hope food and media companies will follow," she said. Ms. Wootan noted that the marketing industry is coming around to the view that it should be advertising healthier products to kids and is likely to comply, rather than fight.
"I think companies are very sensitive and are concerned about being blamed for rising obesity rates, don't want negative publicity or to be sued."