Editorial: FTC invites self-policing

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Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris gave food marketers and media companies an even break last week as a parting yearend gift. In talking to the media about the twin issues of youth obesity and phony diet and weight-loss ads, he steered clear of broadsides against food ads directed to kids and media acceptance of phony diet-ad claims and gave business a window in which to act on its own. They should seize the opportunity.

Food advertisers should offer more activity, not complacency, in responding to the new scrutiny of food ads. And media companies have another chance to tighten their scrutiny of diet and weight-loss product ads. Already, some food marketers have adjusted marketing and products. Media executives, though cautious about imposing tighter standards on advertisers, may finally tighten their screening with new FTC assistance.

Chairman Muris warned the FTC has opened a new review of food marketing but was careful to say he plans no repeat of the commission's "long, sad history" of battling the food and advertising industries over ads to kids. The 1970s FTC tried and failed to declare that ads directed to young kids were "unfair" advertising and to ban them on an industrywide basis. The current FTC, Mr. Muris said, favors action, if needed, on a case-by-case basis against individual advertisers.

The FTC also is helping media sort out legitimate diet and weight-loss ads from the preposterous, distributing a guidebook to media for use in ad clearance that identifies claims lacking any scientific support. Pushed into the background were earlier FTC threats to take media to court if they accepted fraudulent diet or weight-loss ads.

There will be more about food and diet-product advertising from FTC next year. But for marketers and media, there is a clear invitation from FTC to act now to get their houses in order. They should not squander the opportunity.

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