A congressionally commissioned study on food marketing to kids released Tuesday recommends that SpongeBob and his ilk be limited to plugging spinach, that programmers work healthy diets into their storylines and that advertisers shift their kids'-TV budgets away from high-calorie, low-nutrient foods to healthier fare voluntarily or have the government do it for them.
The committee did not quantify how much that shift should be.
Those are just some of the recommendations of "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?," a study released Tuesday by the National Academies' Institute of Medicine. The Academies serve as consultants to the government on science and technology, including medicine.
The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control at the behest of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, according to Academies spokeswoman Christine Stencel, with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) a prime mover, having gotten $1 million for the funding through a fiscal-year-2004 Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Bill.
The study also recommends that the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services—currently Mike Leavitt—designate an agency to monitor compliance with the recommendations, with input from the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission.
The study did recommend some carrots before getting out the big stick of regulation, including public recognition, "performance awards," and tax incentives that "reward food, beverage, and restaurant companies that develop, provide, and promote healthier foods and beverages for children and youth..."
The Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth, which was established in 2004 to prepare the report, looked at several hundred articles on the subject and concluded that, among other factors, "television advertising influences children to prefer and request high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages."
The committee comprises numerous academics, including Howard Beales, former director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, as well as some marketers and media representatives. It concluded that "food and beverage marketing practices geared to children and youth are out of balance with healthful diets and contribute to an environment that puts their health at risk."
Committee Chair Michael McGinnis, of the Institute of Medicine, said the committee's report was somewhat limited by a lack of access to proprietary market research.
"If voluntary efforts related to advertising during children's television programming are unsuccessful in shifting the emphasis away from high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages to the advertising of healthful foods and beverages," says the report, "Congress should enact legislation mandating the shift on both broadcast and cable television."
The committee said it would give the industry two years to clean up its act.
Additional recommendations: 1) "[I]ncorporating into multiple platforms--cable, broadcast, Internet, wireless--storylines that promote healthful diets;" 2) "Assure that licensed characters are used only for promotion of foods and beverages that support healthful diets for children and youth;" 3) "Revise, expand, apply, enforce, and evaluate explicit industry self-regulatory guidelines beyond traditional advertising to include evolving vehicles and venues for marketing communications (e.g. the Internet, advergames, branded product placement across multiple media)."
Another suggestion that could have media implications is the creation of an industrywide food rating/labeling system.
Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation, was disconcerted by what he said was the study's failure to recognize efforts by food companies over the past three years to promote healthy foods.
"There have been 4,500 new or reformulated products with improved nutrition [over that time]," Snyder said. " I am surprised at the lack of recognition."
Though the report did not cite those efforts, some of that recognition came at the press conference, where several committee members acknowledged those steps but added that the magnitude of the problem required much more.
As to government attempts to get companies to shift advertising from snacks to spinach, Snyder said that "there is not a government body in a position to tell the food industry what products to advertise or not advertise."
That is outside of the FTC, he says, which has already said it does not need any more authority to regulate. Harkin disagrees, having already introduced a bill that would give the FTC express authority to regulate ads directed at children.
Harkin said of the study Tuesday: "This report proves that the onslaught of junk-food marketing is endangering the health of our children. We would like to think that SpongeBob Squarepants, Shrek, and the Disney princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters, but they are being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices. This must stop. The industry must make the improvements that the Institute of Medicine has recommended."
Harkin spokeswoman Allison Dobson said the senator would push the industry and HHS to adopt the recommendations but would take the legislative route again if that proved unsuccessful.