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Where's the Beef?

Congress wants substance in long-awaited report on child obesity and media marketing 12/14/2007 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The government-industry task force on obesity and media marketing aims to release its report to Congress by early next year or sooner, according to a source familiar with the talks. And with the task force in its 14th month without a report, at least one Congressional leader vows to put the industry on a strict marketing diet if the final wording is too soft on the television industry.

The Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity has put off releasing the report before—in July and again in September—and now hopes to get something out by the end of the year.

Several factors have led to the delay. One is that in response to pressure from Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), various food manufacturers and media companies have pledged to limit the use of licensed characters in snack ads while adding them to plugs for vegetables—SpongeBob Spinach, for example; set nutritional guidelines on foods it advertises in media targeted to kids under 12; not use placements in kids shows; and even cut all snack ads from kids educational shows, as NBC pledged for its owned TV stations.

In making early efforts, though, the industry hopes to ward off regulation. This has led to report drafts that do more summarizing of those efforts than proposing the sort of major cuts in marketing that children's activists are looking for.

“I remain hopeful that the Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity will result in meaningful and quantifiable progress in combating this problem,” Markey told B&C last week. “However, if the task force fails to achieve sufficient progress, the FCC already possesses ample authority to address limits on advertising targeting children, and I will be urging the FCC to use their authority in order to help children and their parents make healthier choices.”

One proposal the industry might sign off on, however, according to one industry source familiar with the talks, is third-party monitoring. The Grocery Manufacturers Association is said to be kicking the tires on a proposal to have the Institute of Medicine (IOM), for example, keep tabs on the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. The IOM is part of the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization created by the government to advise on scientific matters.

Task Force member Jeff McIntyre, from the American Psychological Association, says he has heard a couple of different suggestions for monitoring by IOM or the Centers for Disease Control. “Mostly they were measurement exercises,” he says, but suggests those exercises weren't necessarily going to contribute to the overall health of the effort. “The more we talked about it, the more we saw how tricky it would be to actually get measurements that resembled anything remotely scientifically reliable. There were just too many potholes in the road.”

The government/industry obesity task force was launched in September 2005 to much fanfare. Then-presidential candidate Sam Brownback and still-FCC Chairman Kevin Martin teamed up with activists and industry representatives to tout it as a way to deal with the health crisis of obesity by getting the government, food marketers and the media to work together rather than on opposite sides of either accusatory or defensive statements.

Brownback is no longer running; Martin has his hands full trying to hold to a vote on newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership, getting reclaimed TV spectrum auctioned in January, and fending off critics from the right and left; and various industry players have been announcing their own self-regulatory plans in an effort to beat the task force to the punch.

The issue certainly hasn't gone away. Two weeks ago, Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and John Edwards weighed in on the topic, with Obama telling Common Sense Media that he wasn't sure regulation of junk food ads on kids television was the right way to go, preferring to educate kids about how they were being marketed. Edwards told the group that government regulation might be necessary if the industry did not follow the self-regulatory lead of companies like Kellogg and Kraft. And Hillary Clinton has been very vocal about her concerns over marketing to children.

According to an industry source who has seen a copy of the draft report, it essentially summarized the self-regulatory steps the industry has taken through the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, including cutting back or out the use of licensed characters, swearing off mixed messages—say, eating a doughnut while jogging—and marketing snack foods to kids in schools.

“The industry would be happy with a report that essentially outlined the self-regulation to date, which has taken some of the wind out of the sails of the activists,” the source said, “while they would prefer there be no snack food marketing to kids at all.” Finding a compromise position has been the sticking point, he said, and the most recent draft was essentially a shout-out to industry efforts so far, which activists did not want to sign off on.

The report could still be issued with the activist complaints duly noted, though that could create PR problems given that the goal was to get traditional opponents to work together.

A spokesman for task force member Gary Knell, president of Sesame Workshop and the task force's so-called “lead facilitator,” says he is still collecting “final edits” on the report. He says Knell has been trying to push that process along, but adds that there isn't anything to report as of yet.

'COMPROMISE POSITION'

McIntyre, who is also a facilitator, says he has not heard anything in the last two weeks about the report. “Our goal,” says McIntyre, calling it a “compromise position,” has been “to achieve balance in food advertising.” He explains that at least half of the food advertising marketed to kids is for non-junk food, “however you want to define that,” which is one self-regulation no one has committed to. McIntyre concedes, however, that there are still disagreements over how it would be defined and measured.

A report that would essentially point to industry efforts already undertaken would not sit well with McIntyre: “If there is a report that were issued that had our name in any capacity assigned to it without our approval, that is a major concern.”

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