The revision of the ad industry's marketing guidelines to children under 12, as administered by the Children's Advertising Review Unit, applies to all industries, including marketers of games, video games and toys in addition to food products.
Ban ads that blur ad messages
Those changes ban ads that blur the line between editorial content and advertising in ways children don't understand and require commercial messages in so-called "advergames" to be easily understood by children. In the biggest change, CARU, which up to now has been limited to enforcing very specific violations of its guidelines, gets new authority to take on any child-targeted ad it deems "unfair."
The food marketers initiative has as its charter participants 10 companies that together account for more than two-thirds of the food and beverage ads -- Cadbury Schweppes USA, Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola Co., General Mills, Hershey Co., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, McDonald's Corp., PepsiCo and Unilever.
Promoting 'healthy choices'
According to the "Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative," the marketers agreed to devote at least half their TV, radio, print and internet advertising "primarily directed to children under 12 to advertising that will further the goal of promoting healthy dietary choices and healthy lifestyles." The marketers also have committed to promoting either healthy foods or healthy lifestyles in interactive games; banning ads to elementary schools; banning product placement of products that appeal to children in editorial and entertainment content; and reducing the use of third-party licensed characters in advertising unless the ad messages comply with the initiative's health goals.
The 10 food marketers will each publish their own commitment plans, with the Better Business Bureaus creating an independent review group to ensure their compliance with them. CARU has no oversight of the food marketer's initiative.
Today's announcement was made by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Council, which called the latest guidelines the biggest rewrite governing children's advertising in 32 years. The three main advertising associations, the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the American Advertising Federation and the Association of National Advertisers, joined with the Better Business Bureaus to create the National Advertising Review Council. CARU is a unit of the National Advertising Review Council.
More marketers sought
Several big children's advertisers aren't part of the food initiative. NARC President-CEO C. Lee Peeler said getting more to join is a priority. Nancy Weise, chairman of the NARC board and VP-worldwide brand marketing at Xerox, said the efforts would be coordinated with the Ad Council's Coalition for Healthy Children.
The announcement followed a long review of CARU's guidelines eventually headed by Jodie Bernstein, former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection and comes amidst considerable pressure from Congress, some members of the Federal Communications Commission and consumer groups, who charged marketers weren't doing enough to rein in junk-food ads.
FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said the two programs showed "real promise" and that she hoped they would encourage more competition in developing and marketing healthier foods.
In announcing the changes today, the Better Business Bureau, ad association execs and marketers touted the changes as proof that industry self-regulation works.
"This program is an excellent example of how voluntary self-regulation and the BBB advance marketplace trust," Steven J. Cole, president-CEO of the Better Business Bureaus, said in a statement.
For those following the debate over childhood obesity and what role, if any, marketing has played in it, it should come as no surprise consumer groups were skeptical of the initiatives. The consumer groups said marketers' unwillingness to offer clear and convincing details demonstrated the need for legislative or regulatory action.
The changes "are the clearest indication yet that self-regulation has failed," said Susan Linn, a Harvard University psychologist who founded the Center for Commercial-Free Children. She said and initiative showing children snowboarding -- a healthy lifestyle choice as per the marketers' guidelines -- would allow McDonald's to advertise Big Macs. "That months of industry deliberation resulted in virtually no change in advertising policy is just another nail in the coffin of self-regulation," she said.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a statement from executive director Michael F. Jacobson, called the guidelines "something of a retreat," saying they fall short of what some individual companies are doing on their own.
'It's a joke'
"If a 'healthy lifestyle message' means that Ronald McDonald is pedaling a bike while peddling junk food, that message still does more harm than good. It's a joke," he said. "CARU and CBBB should scrap this initiative and start from scratch."
Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, said childhood obesity will endure until Congress passes laws against marketing to kids.
"Junk food marketers are dreaming if they think they can halt tough new laws against marketing to children," he said. "Eventually, they will be held accountable for their actions, just like the tobacco industry."
But the programs drew a qualified endorsement from a key player, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has been critical of marketers and in January will become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
In a statement, Mr. Harkin said the initiatives shows "that the industry is headed in the right direction" but that it also "has a significant way to go and more companies need to join the fight to have a true impact."
He expressed concern that the programs give companies "significant leeway to continue marketing unhealthy foods to kids" and pledged to monitor progress and enforcement. "Ultimately, Congress will examine this issue closely."