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Food-Marketing Debate Heats Up

Congress to join FCC and FTC in pressing for action 5/18/2007 08:00:00 PM Eastern

The issue of marketing “junk food” to kids is getting hotter than the molten fruit filling inside a fast-food apple pie. Fueling the debate is the dramatic increase in childhood obesity, which government and industry agree is a growing national health problem.

In the next few weeks, the Federal Trade Commission will issue subpoenas to 44 companies, including food manufacturers and marketers. The subpoenas are intended to gather information for a forthcoming FTC report to Congress on how companies market so-called junk foods to kids—an industry estimated at $10 billion to $15 billion.

Meanwhile, a government/industry task force on childhood obesity and food marketing is feverishly trying to come up with recommendations on best practices by early summer. FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who serves on the task force, says that, if the group fails to establish suitable guidelines for industry self-regulation, the FCC may have to weigh in.

Congress may be eyeing the issue hungrily, too. According to a top staffer on the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee, Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) plans to hold hearings on the media's marketing of junk food to children. Whether the subcommittee will hold hearings before or after the task force makes its recommendations to Congress is still unclear.

Markey had asked Martin and FCC Commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Michael Copps (also members of the task force) to initiate a rulemaking based on whether they supported limiting or eliminating food ads in children's television. The three said last week that they will wait for the task-force recommendations. However, if those aren't tough enough, they added, the FCC is ready to step in.

The commissioners also said they will consider stripping kids shows of their educational/informational seal of approval if they air with snack-food ads. (The FCC requires stations to run three hours of educational kids programming a week.)

But Markey responded that he doesn't think the FCC should wait for the task-force report before opening an inquiry. That indicates that the hearings could come sooner, rather than later.

As for the FTC subpoenas, the commission accepted comments until last week on what information it should seek and will probably issue the subpoenas in a couple of weeks.

Jeff Chester, of the Center for Digital Democracy, and activist group Children Now want the FTC to cast a wide net. They argue that the issue of junk-food marketing goes beyond TV commercials to what they call a “marketing ecosystem” that includes cellphones, mobile music devices, instant messaging, videogames and virtual worlds.

While Chester and company argue for government oversight and intervention, Adonis Hoffman, general counsel of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), says the key to helping children navigate that ecosystem is media literacy. “Parents, food companies, marketers, advertisers, children's advocates and the government all have a stake in helping children understand the difference between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, and content and advertising in the media,” he says.

But Hoffman adds that education is not a substitute for changes in food products or encouraging exercise and healthy lifestyles—something the industry has already begun to address. After a 2005 workshop on marketing food to kids, the FTC issued recommendations that spurred advertisers to reduce the number of snack-food ads in kids shows. And media companies have rolled out a raft of pro-exercise campaigns to get those little spuds off the couch.

Hoffman commends the industry's efforts to address childhood obesity as “remarkable” and praises the task force as an unprecedented convocation of marketers, advertisers, children's advocates and the government.

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