Big Food's Big Deal Not Such a Big Concession

ANALYSIS: Moves Make Sense, but Most of Titans were Already Onboard

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NEW YORK ( -- It's heralded as the biggest shakeup in children's ad guidelines in 32 years and a history-making united front by Big Food to tackle obesity among kids. So what radical changes can you expect from most of the titans who signed on to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative last week? Very few.

The $500 billion-plus food industry and the ad groups that work with it to stave off government regulation are flogging the initiative as a huge advance in the fat fight, and it's certainly a very public declaration of intent. But the truth is that at least five of the marketers who signed on-Pepsi, Kraft, General Mills, McDonald's and Unilever-already operate well within the guidelines. Even the others, Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola and Hershey, have been treading carefully in their ad efforts, fearing the ever-lurking threat of litigation or legislation.

Among other things, the initiative, hammered out by the National Advertising Review Council with the Children's Advertising Unit of the Better Business Bureaus, requires that those 10 companies-which account for two-thirds of children's TV ads-use at least half of their ads directed to children to promote more-healthful dietary choices and/or to encourage healthful lifestyles. The initiative also extends governmental oversight to advergames and the use of licensed characters.

"This is the first time that a large group of companies representing a very significant share of children's TV expenditures are making a public commitment about what's going to be in their advertising," said C. Lee Peeler, president, CEO of the NARC at the announcement of the initiative.

But major food marketers have long been living in fear of regulatory threats and giant lawsuits like those slapped on the tobacco industry, and, as a result, Big Food has been regulating itself for years. Most of those marketers have been strict about what and how they advertise to kids.

That's one reason the announcement is being seen as a PR ploy that backfired. Because the announcement was, by design, focused on delivering news of the creation of the overall initiative rather than on the efforts of individual marketers, no details were provided to frustrated journalists seeking examples of what real changes the new effort might create. That's something that "in retrospect looks like a mistake," one food-industry executive acknowledged.

When the announcement was made, questions were batted aside with the repeated statement that the companies would be giving specifics about how they would fulfill their pledges within the next six to nine months. And that led the press to turn, out of necessity, to Big Food's biggest detractors for context.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, was widely quoted blasting the initiative as "pathetic" and "a PR gimmick that offers virtually no progress."

Kraft, McDonald's and Pepsi suffered the brunt of bad PR that gave more space to CSPI's arguments than to the developers and participants of the initiative. "This was spin," said Mike Paul, president of MGP Associates Public Relations, "and [the food industry will] have to get beyond that and make real changes or they'll get beat up again very soon."

'stake in the ground'

Even executives within the food companies acknowledge that the initiative doesn't go as far as it should, but that it is, as one executive put it, "putting a stake in the ground, even if it's not as far forward as we'd hoped."

What it's likely to accomplish is to force outliers conspicuously absent among the major food companies to push harder in their commitments to kids' health and level the playing field. "Companies will want to demonstrate measurable progress at least on par with their competitors, and, as they do that, the standards for all are likely to rise over time," said General Mills spokesman Tom Forsyth.

But the initiative has also forced Big Food into essentially demonizing itself, weakening its long-held stance that all foods are OK in moderation.

And rather than lift the industry's reputation, the pact may have exposed Big Food to more criticism. The initiative is yet another example of "grandstanding by CSPI and a bunker mentality by the [food] companies," which, after all, said an agency executive, "can only make changes to a certain level and still maintain profitability."
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