In a letter that became public this week, Masterfoods told Robert Madelin, the European Commission's director-general for health and consumer protection, "We have decided to make an official policy change to a cutoff age of 12 years for all our core products."
In November 2006, Ofcom dismayed marketers in the U.K. with its surprise decision to make 16 the cutoff age for the ban on advertising foods high in fat, salt and sugar. Marketers had hoped the cutoff age would be much lower. Until that decision, the U.K. had leaned toward self-regulation. There is no time frame for the Ofcom under-16 ban to go into effect.
Others ended toy promos
Hoping to fend off legal action in the U.K., KFC and Burger King both ended all toy promotions, and Coca-Cola, Cadbury, Kraft, Burger King and McDonald's Corp. all promised not to advertise to children under 12.
But an angry Masterfoods sent Ofcom a seven-page letter -- dated Dec. 28, 2006 -- that slammed the decision, which Masterfoods optimistically referred to as "the current Ofcom proposal." In the letter, which is posted on Ofcom's website, Masterfoods lists six reasons for disagreeing with a policy that would restrict on marketing to children under age 16. "The proposal is not consistent with government policy," the letter states. Masterfoods goes on to say that "the proposal is based on supposition and anecdote" and that "the proposal ignores accepted academic opinion about the effect of media literacy."
The letter was sent from the Slough, U.K., headquarters of Masterfoods, a division of Mars U.K.
A Mars spokesperson in the U.S. did not return calls about whether the decision to advertise only to children over 12 will apply worldwide.
Patchwork of policies
Currently, Europe is a patchwork of self-regulatory measures and outright bans regarding food advertising and the fight against obesity in both children and adults. France is struggling with a new law requiring food marketers in France to either add a health message to ads for any manufactured food or beverage except water, or to pay a tax equal to 1.5% of their annual ad budget toward campaigns for more-healthful eating. The French law was supposed to go into effect last year, but its provisions are still unclear.
Separately, in the U.S., Mars this week signed on to the children's advertising initiative spearheaded by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and the National Advertising Review Council, becoming the 11th marketer to promise to focus most of its ads aimed at children on more healthful versions of their products. Marketers who sign on to the so-called Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative announced in November agree to devote at least half their TV, radio, print and internet marketing "primarily directed to children under 12 to advertising that will further the goal of promoting healthy dietary choices and healthy lifestyles."
With the U.S. move, Mars joins Cadbury Schweppes USA, Campbell Soup Co., Coca-Cola Co., General Mills, Hershey Co., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Unilever; ad groups say the 11 marketers account for more than two-thirds of the food and beverage ads children see.
Ira Teinowitz and Stephanie Thompson contributed to this report.