In advance of a Federal Trade Commission forum on food marketing and childhood obesity, kids advocacy group Children Now planned to unveil a study Monday, Dec. 14, that claims the food and beverage industry's self-regulatory efforts have not worked.
It and other studies being pitched at the FTC next week come as the commission considers new government guidelines on food marketing on air, online and perhaps elsewhere. "The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children," by veteran kids TV researcher Dale Kunkel, was being prepared for release at a George Washington University conference. It found that almost three out of four foods advertised to kids on TV (72%) are for products "in the poorest nutritional category," while only 1% are for healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.
"We have given the industry time and opportunity to address this issue. Unfortunately, the research indicates that their pledges have failed our children," said Jeff McIntyre, director of national policy for Children Now, in a statement announcing the study, which will also be presented at the FTC event.
Food and beverage companies put out a progress report in October on the Council of Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was launched in 2006, after an earlier FTC forum on the issue advised that more industry self-regulation of snack food marketing was necessary to combat the growing childhood obesity problem. The report asserted that the 12 companies now in their second year of the initiative (four more companies have since signed up) have demonstrated an "excellent level of compliance."
That initiative promised to shift ads targeted to kids under 12 to healthier diets, which it tabbed "better for you" products and more exercise. Participating companies pledged to reduce the use of licensed characters to promote foods that don't meet its product or message standards, to agree not to use product placement "primarily directed" to kids under 12, and to self-regulate food-related on marketing, including gaming sites.
Kunkel's study said those efforts have not been successful and that almost half of the food ads featuring licensed characters are for foods that "pose the greatest risk for obesity."
That study, the Chester/Montgomery research on digital/interactive marketing, and other studies being prepped for this week's FTC forum, including one on the effects of marketing on minority kids, could have a receptive audience in Washington. The FTC's forum will include a report on an interagency group of the FTC Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control, which will update the status of proposed government nutritional standards for food marketing.
The forum comes as the FTC is collecting information on its own follow-up to the food and beverage self-regulatory initiative, and as the Obama administration is working on a healthcare bill that it is promoting as reducing healthcare costs. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that the medical costs of obesity could be as high as $147 billion
The FTC is doing its follow-up study because its initial study, released in 2008, was based on 2006 data before and in the earliest stages of the industry initiative. At the time of that 2008 report, then-commissioner, now FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said the initiative was just a first step with "a long way to go. He said that "better for you" did not mean "good for you."He also suggested that the industry's standard for measuring a child audience for purposed of limiting targeted marketing does not include popular shows like American Idol, where the percentage of the kids in the audience may be under the standard, but still represent millions of viewers. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) --who has been a leader in Congress on the childhood obesity issue, including serving on a government-industry task force -- didn't like what he saw in the Children's Now study, and said the government may have to step in.
"The food industry vowed to limit the amount of advertising dollars spent to promote unhealthy foods to children, and focus more on nutritious items," he said in a statement.
"That's why I am so discouraged by this report out today. When private interests work against the public good, government is obliged to act. We need to examine this issue more closely and figure what needs to be done to achieve balance on the airwaves so that we can improve the health and wellness of our children."
American Association of Advertising Agencies Senior VP and Counsel Adonis Hoffman says it is wrong to dismiss industry efforts, but does agree that it remains a work in progress and not a finished product.
"Parents, schools and kids are more aware now than ever before of the choices they have when it comes to healthful food choices," he said in response to the new report's suggestion the industry self regulations have failed. "The response by the food industry to address not only the marketing of food, but the content of the foods cannot be overlooked. There may be a ways to go, but the willingness of food and beverage companies to compromise in the face of changing standards and demand has been remarkable. Once again, the resolution of the problem is going to fall squarely in the laps of moms and dads out there who must make the hard choices. For better or worse, that's behavior you can't just legislate against."