"I would like to see the industry not advertising directly to children," said European Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, giving them a deadline of one year. "If this doesn't produce satisfactory results, we will proceed to legislation."
The commission has called for the food industry to set its own regulations to curb so-called junk-food advertising aimed at the European Union's 450 million citizens-or face bans similar to the tobacco industry.
That ominous comparison is increasingly being made in the U.S. as well. Commenting on a McDonald's plan to send Ronald McDonald to schools to preach about nutrition, an aide to Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said, "No matter what Ronald is doing, they are still using this cartoon character to sell fatty hamburgers to kids. Once upon a time, tobacco companies had Joe Camel and they didn't get it either."
The industry is already under siege in the U.S. from a growing array of government and consumer-advocacy group initiatives. Among them: a study commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the link between marketing and children's health; new dietary guidelines from the USDA; proposed guidelines for advertising to kids from the Center of Science in the Public Interest; and a Health and Human Services conference on marketing to kids proposed by Mr. Harkin. But, despite a slew of individual company efforts to shift new-product and marketing focus to healthier offerings, the industry has, until now, largely shied away from defending itself more broadly.
"The food industry should have presented a much stronger unified case a long time ago to say 'we're not going to be the whipping boy,"' said John Stanton, professor of food marketing at St. John's University. "Hopefully that's what they're trying to do now."
Last week, major marketers including Kraft, General Mills and Kellogg Co. along with industry trade group Grocery Manufacturers of America, the American Advertising Federation, American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers formed the Alliance for American Advertising to formally take on critics. And those groups along with PepsiCo, McDonald's Corp. and others defended themselves at a meeting in Washington last week sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.
There is fear, however, that the food industry's continued pandering to politicians will distract it from focusing on developing real solutions to obesity. Mr. Stanton said small shifts in behavior, such as taking stairs instead of escalators, can help. But, fearful of litigation and congressional action, companies like Kraft have recently drawn big attention to shifts in kids' marketing practices that many believe do little to solve the obesity problem-and actually create bigger problems for Big Food.
"The European Union is on it, Washington is on it, the ball is rolling now and the food companies have to do something," said one top agency executive. But he added, "I hope [food companies] won't be bullied into doing things that play to the politicians," noting there are other contributing factors for obesity, such as low income. He said food marketers could truly contribute to a solution by putting money into programs like the USDA's Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, a subsidized food and education program that also happens to be very good at driving sales for the products approved for the list.
Keith Ayoob, a pediatric nutritionist who sits on the Academic Advisory Board of the Children's Advertising Review Unit, also advocated "translating the hype down to real solutions" like physical education in schools and parents-"the most important role models, according to substantiated research"-reclaiming responsibility.
"If a food has a right to exist, a marketer has the right to advertise it," Mr. Ayoob said, noting that accuracy and context is regulated by CARU, whose complaints to marketers are complied with roughly 98% of the time.
But winning the PR game is essential these days, especially when food-marketer critics have been able to amass a wellspring of media attention. Kraft Senior VP-Lance Friedmann remarked at last week's Institute of Medicine meeting that, in addition to eliminating ads of certain products in outlets that reach primarily kids ages 6 to 11, the company would alter its Web sites to "eliminate the depiction of food consumption." Mr. Friedmann said such moves are part of practices that "align with Americans' expectations of a responsible food company." And, of course, the government's.
contributing: ira teinowitz and kate macarthur