Food Ads Fried by Watchdogs

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Food ads are taking a big hit in Washington. The American Psychological Association is calling for restrictions on TV advertising targeting children eight and under, saying it leads to "unhealthy habits."

An APA task force concluded that the most common ads aimed at children are for sugared cereals, candies, sodas, and snacks, which it said contribute to the current "epidemic of obesity among kids." But it also took aim at beer and videogame ads.

The APA task force also slammed beer ads in sports that attract young viewers, as well as commercials for violent films and videogames.

Among the APA’s other recommendations are to make disclosures and disclaimers easily understandable to children and to do further studies on other categories of advertising, including the Internet and in-school pitches and product placement.

The Kaiser Foundation also took on TV and obesity with its recently released report on "The Role of Media in Childhood Obesity."

Both the report and the APA study say kids watch 40,000 commercials per year, primarily in the above food categories. As expected, the Kaiser study also concluded that exposure to "billions of dollars worth of food advertising and marketing in the media may be a key mechanism through which media contributes to childhood obesity."

The study also pointed to product tie-ins with favorite characters, citing among others SpongeBob Cheez-Its and Telletubbies Happy Meals.

American Association of Advertising Agencies’ senior VP and counsel Adonis Hoffman countered that the industry recognizes its special responsibility to children, who have a more difficult time separating fiction from reality. He said that’s why the industry created the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), which sets guidelines for such ads and refers violators to the Federal Trade Commission.

Hoffman said CARU has been hailed by both Democratic and Republican FTC heads as a model of self-regulation. But he concedes that obesity and increased TV viewing are societal issues that must be dealt with.

Advertisers must "make sure that the makers of commercial messages act responsibly. We think they have done so and continue to do so," Hoffman said. "We are open to suggestions."

For society’s part, he said, parents have a responsibility to "make sure their kids eat the right stuff and don’t watch too much TV."

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