FTC "Fixes" Mirror Existing Self-Regs


A number of items pitched as recommendations in a new government report mirror pledges already made, and in some cases instituted, by the ad industry.

In a report released this week, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services made a point of saying they were making recommendations to the industry on how it can better market foods to kids that they planned to "monitor closely."

Some of the recommendations for improving the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) came as a surprise to, among others, the Children's Advertising Review Unit, since it is already doing much of what the government says it should be.

Among the expanded and enhanced enforcement the government agencies prominently called for were including more nutrition experts on the review board, allowing parents to file complaints with CARU, and make decisions more readily available online. Had they been monitoring more closely, they might have noticed many were already in place.

James Guthrie, president of the National Advertising Review Council, which oversees CARU, points out that CARU has already expanded the board by adding a third nutritionist and that more additions are expected. It has also, since last summer, had an online complaint form to make it easier for consumers to file complaints.

Guthrie points out that CARU's decisions are archived online and free to the public. He also says that CARU is hiring an outreach staffer to, among other things, let more parents know it is out there and ready to respond to complaints.

In fact, much of what the report said it was calling on the industry to do and monitoring for compliance as it related to CARU were things the industry itself had volunteered to do last year.

Back in September, NARC proposed to the FTC that it would take several steps to expand industry self-regulation of children's advertising, including looking into product placement and online advertising, which was something else the report this week offered up as its own recommendation.

The NARC proposals came in response to recommendations by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to an FTC workshop on kids advertising and obesity.

In July, GMA proposed expanding the duties of CARU, whose policies NARC sets, to include guidelines for product placements in children's shows and limits on the interactive games, known as “adver-games.”

The Surgeon General has warned that obesity is becoming the nation's biggest health crisis, and the media has been under pressure to crack down on marketing practices.

In a Sept. 15 letter to the FTC and GMA, NARC President James R. Guthrie, outlined the council's response, which included pledges to expand its review though no promises of set guidelines or prohibitions:

•The new Web-based Better Business Bureau form (www.bbb.org) designed to make it easier to file a complaint, with links from the major ad association Web sites
•More advisors to review ads, and more transparency, with those opinions made available to affected advertisers
•More outside pre-screening of ads by outside parties.
•Expand guidelines to cover ads in Web sites, computer games, and video games.
•Determine whether there is paid product placement in kids shows and, if so, what should be done about it.
•Gather input on third-party licensed characters in advertising. It already prohibits host-selling (SpongeBob Spinach pitched in the SpongeBob series, for example), but not  third-party selling (SpongeBob Spinach pitched in Rugrats).

In the letter, Guthrie also pledged a "closer relationship" with the FTC and the Department of Health and Human Services, which will include an annual formal FTC briefing on "issues, cases and trends."