Beware of the food nanny

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Last week the Center for Science in the Public Interest did something that was neither based on science nor beneficial to the public interest. It released a set of ill-conceived, heavy-handed food marketing guidelines. Based on flawed data and backed by the threat of lawsuits, it intends to coerce the food and marketing industries to conform to its misguided views of what constitutes good nutrition and what represents appropriate commercial communication with consumers.

In issuing these guidelines, CSPI misstates the facts about food advertising and childhood TV viewing; it overlooks the broad array of factors-beyond marketing-that influence childhood food consumption; it disregards the significant efforts of food companies to enhance the nutritional content of their products; and it ignores the fact that food and other advertising are already among the most stringently regulated areas in the U.S.

Styling themselves as the nation's food nanny, CSPI has proposed a set of extraordinarily overreaching regulations, which specify acceptable nutritional content, portion size, packaging design and logo use. It further seeks to control communications in TV shows, video games, Web sites and books. And it attempts to dictate use of premiums, incentives, licensing arrangements, cross-promotions, sponsorships and even the aisles within supermarkets where food products are displayed.

The guideline specifics are ridiculously restrictive. For example, children are defined as "anyone under 18;" low-nutrition beverages are defined as "drinks with less than 50% real juice;" and banned TV shows are those "for which more than a quarter of the audience is children." They are an affront to-and broadside attack on-the marketing freedoms of food and restaurant businesses, broadcasters, entertainment companies and the entire marketing industry.

We won't be intimidated! Nor will American consumers who-unlike CSPI-recognize the importance of personal and parental responsibility, public education, dietary balance and moderation and, of course, physical activity in addressing the issues of childhood nutrition and obesity.

major flaws

So let me specifically address the major flaws inherent in CSPI's guidelines.

First, CSPI speciously claims that the amount of marketing aimed at kids has doubled in the last ten years. In examining measured media, however, a detailed study by Nielsen Media Research covering the period of 1993 to 2003 concludes otherwise. Adjusting for inflation in order to hold the value of dollars constant, real expenditures on food and restaurant advertising on TV (including cable) fell over this ten-year period. Furthermore, the actual number of food ads seen by children under 12 declined by 13% from the first four years of this period to the last four years. Rather than being increasingly bombarded by restaurant and food advertising, as CSPI would have people believe, kids 12 and under are actually seeing fewer food and restaurant ads today.

Second, CSPI's report states that "parents bear the primary responsibility for feeding their children." However, the guidelines then ignore this point and the fact that adults make the vast majority of food purchases for their families, particularly for younger kids. They also disregard what the majority of food experts inherently know: that the best way to encourage good childhood nutrition is to promote healthy, well-balanced diets, rather than attempting to characterize some products as "good foods" and others as "bad foods." When other countries have attempted to ban or severely restrict children's advertising, those efforts have consistently failed to lower obesity rates in comparison to countries where there are no such restrictions.

Finally, let's take a look at the significant, positive steps the food and marketing industries are taking-and have historically taken-to address the special concerns of children. Thirty years ago, the marketing industry established the Children's Advertising Review Unit specifically to recognize that material which might be truthful and non-deceptive for adults could still mislead young people. CARU created a detailed code, available at, which proactively works to assure that children are not taken advantage of in the advertising marketplace. CARU diligently carries out its own monitoring and receives complaints from regulators, consumer advocates, the Attorneys General, competitors and the public at large. The record of industry compliance with CARU's guidelines demonstrates an extremely high level of effectiveness.

Equally important are the many significant steps that food and restaurant companies are taking to bring healthy new offerings to market. For example, they are reformulating products to be lower in cholesterol, fat and calories. They are removing trans-fats, reducing sodium and sugar content, introducing whole grains and offering more milk products and salad menu items.

There is no question that childhood nutrition and obesity are serious societal issues. However, as the Surgeon General concluded in his groundbreaking 2001 report, "There is no simple or quick answer to this multifaceted challenge." Unlike CSPI's guidelines, which mislead the public by narrowly focusing on food advertising, the Surgeon General's report contains thoughtful, specific recommendations on how to address the challenge in a balanced, comprehensive way. It further calls on all of us-companies, individuals, families, schools, governments and the media-to work together in ways that will bring better health to everyone in this country. We accept this challenge and stand ready to collaborate with all other interested, responsible parties to identify solutions that will truly work.


Bob Liodice is president-CEO of the Association of National Advertisers and is on the board of The Advertising Council, the Advertising Research Foundation, and the Partnership for a Drug Free America, among others.

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