CSPI Asks Nets to Trim Kids Ads

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To help stem rising obesity rates in kids, the Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling on TV networks, stations and food marketers to eliminate one of the major sources of support for children’s programming—junk and fast food advertising to anyone under 18.

The plea is the centerpiece of CSPI’s new "Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing," unveiled Thursday at a Washington press conference.

Under the guidelines, SpongeBob toys would no longer be marketed with Burger King kids meals. No more Mrs. Butterworth’s Little Dunkers on Nickelodeon.

CSPI, which was founded by former Ralph Nader researcher Mark Jacobson,  is urging the TV business, movie studios, food producers and restaurants to follow the guidelines, in part because the group has virtually given up hope that the government will regulate food marketing to kids.

The need to clamp down is increasingly pressing, said CSPI Executive Director Jacobson because marketing aimed at children has more than doubled, to $15 billion, over the past decade. Half of that number is for food.

Jacobsen said poor nutrition and overeating is a primary driver of increasing obesity rates and the prevalence of diabetes and other health problems in children.

Even companies that have added healthier alternatives to their product lineups and menus, such as substituting mandarin oranges for fries, should cut out marketing to children under CSPI’s guidelines if more than half of their products don’t meet federal government criteria for a healthy diet.

Letters asking companies to comply were sent Thursday to the big four broadcast networks, UPN, WB and cable nets specializing in children’s programming. The letters were also sent to major food marketers and restaurant chains.

Jacobson said there have been a few positive signs from industry and local governments that food marketing to kids will be addressed. Kraft, for example, has capped portion sizes in products popular with kids and has stopped marketing in schools. “Some in the industry want to do the right thing,” he said. “If several large companies do it, that will be pressure on others.”

Jacobson also predicted that the threat of class action lawsuits will convince other companies to change their practices. “A well-placed lawsuit is like being smacked by a 2 by 4,” he said.

Nickelodeon officials countered that they are already doing their part to encourage better health habits among kids, with PSAs and other programming encouraging them to turn off the TV and go outside. “We are continuing our efforts to be a positive force in helping kids and families navigate this issue by communicating directly to them about healthier lifestyle choices through extensive PSAs, original programming and our Let's Just Play grassroots program,” said spokesman David Bittler. “We’ve been working both independently and with our marketing partners for over a year to represent a balance of choices.”

Trade groups for advertisers and grocers were quick to dismiss CSPI’s call.

“By narrowly focusing on advertising and marketing, CSPI misses the point,” the Grocery Manufacturers of America (GMA) said in a prepared statement. Effective solutions to obesity “must incorporate sound nutrition, increased physical activity, consumer and parent education and community support.” 

GMA argues that food advertising to kids can’t be the cause of rising obesity rates because the dollars spent on and frequency of ads aimed at kids have dropped during the past decade. According to GMA figures, the number of food and restaurant commercials likely to be seen by children dropped from 5,909 in 1994 to 5,038 in 2003.

Jacobson disputed claims that ads aimed at kids are becoming less frequent. He also chastised industry for marketing only foods high in calories, fat and sugar.

“Marketing to kids is junk,” he said. “McDonald’s is not marketing salads to kids”