Junk food makers pledge to restrict ads

The Baltimore Sun

Trix are no longer for kids -- at least not on children's television shows. But Cocoa Puffs are another matter.

Trying to convince critics they don't need government regulation, 11 big food companies, including McDonald's, Campbell Soup and PepsiCo, have all agreed to stop advertising products that do not meet certain nutritional standards to children under 12.

Some, such as Coca-Cola, have already pulled all such commercials or are in the process of doing so. Others, such as General Mills, said they would pull them over the next year or so. A handful agreed to expand their self-imposed bans to radio, print and Internet advertising.

Still, the agreements will likely amount to a ripple rather than a sea change in terms of what foods children see pitched on their favorite TV shows and Web sites. For example, while General Mills will no longer be advertising Trix to the 12-and-under crowd, it will continue to peddle Cocoa Puffs, which have 1 less gram of sugar per serving. And it will be able to continue advertising Trix on TV shows and other venues that are considered to cater to "families" rather than just children.

That qualifier amounts to a major loophole, given the media-watching habits of children. An episode of Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants, for instance, is viewed by an average audience of 876,000 children ages 6 to 11, according to Nielsen Media Research, and falls in the category of shows that are off-limits to ads for junk food. But Fox's American Idol, which qualifies as a family show, attracts 2.1 million children in the age group.

The companies have also agreed for the first time to open their marketing plans to the Council of Better Business Bureaus and its Children's Advertising Review Unit, which will review them and report publicly on the findings.

This scrutiny and pledges to self-regulate, which will be announced at a Federal Trade Commission event today, are an attempt to show corporate responsiveness to growing concerns about childhood obesity.

"We are hopeful that people will look at this and say that the community has done a substantial, enormous amount of work," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.

Advertisers spend $900 million annually on television tailored to children under 12, according to industry estimates. Together, the companies involved represent two-thirds of the total children's advertising market, according to the Better Business Bureau. Cadbury Adams, Coca-Cola, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars and Unilever are the other participating companies.

The nutritional parameters vary by company, but are all based on the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines developed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.

A pat on the back from critics is unlikely. The pledges, which were made under the threat of regulatory intervention and, in some cases, the threat of lawsuits, fall short of the demands from child advocacy groups. Most critics have been pushing for uniform guidelines for marketers to follow and for oversight from a body with enforcement authority.

"This is great public relations for the companies, but it doesn't go nearly far enough," said Susan Linn, co-founder of the Boston-based group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "It is going to be impossible to monitor if the companies are actually doing what they say."

To some degree, the pledges appeared to be an effort by the food companies to get out in front of a forthcoming government study on childhood obesity. Sens. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, announced July 5 that they would postpone a report from a task force they formed with the Federal Communications Commission in lieu of the companies' plans to announce concessions today.

The financial impact of the pledges on television networks such as Nickelodeon, ABC Family and Cartoon Network will depend on how well the food companies can tweak their products. Many are trying to reformulate the foods to meet nutritional guidelines. If they cannot do so to their satisfaction, they say they will replace ads for so-called junk foods with spots for healthier alternatives.

MTV Networks, which owns Nickelodeon and other channels popular with younger viewers, expects the agreements to have minimal impact on its bottom line.

Similarly, some of the participating companies said their ad budgets will not be altered in any meaningful way; PepsiCo, which makes Pepsi Cola and Frito-Lay snack foods, said its children's advertising budget represents only 1 percent of its overall ad budget. Starting Jan. 1, PepsiCo will advertise to children only products that meet the criteria set out in its 2004 "Smart Spot" nutritional program.

Deborah Platt Majoras, the chairman of the FTC, called the various pledges "a significant step" and urged more food makers to join the effort. "While changes in food marketing alone will not solve the nation's childhood obesity problem," she said in a statement, "these actions will help make a healthy choice the easy choice."

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