The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, commissioned by Congress to study kids food marketing, made it clear last week that it considers childhood obesity a serious enough health risk for the government to require advertisers to alter their strategy to promote healthier foods.
The study recommends that characters like SpongeBob be limited to plugging spinach, that programmers work healthy diets into their storylines, and that advertisers shift their kids-TV budgets to healthier foods ... or else.
“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 study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control at the behest of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, with Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) a prime mover.
The report 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 committee did not quantify how big the ad shift from snacks to spinach would have to be, or exactly which foods would qualify as healthful. Although the effort would involve a public-service initiative and other media besides TV, the committee concluded that TV is a major force, even though the industry has reduced its number of snack ads directed at children.
The study does recommend some carrots before getting out the big stick of regulation, including public recognition, “performance awards” and tax incentives.
The Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth, 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.”
It found 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.”
The committee said it will recommend giving the industry two years to clean up its act on its own.
The ad industry was quick to defend itself. “To lay the blame of childhood obesity on the doorstep of advertisers is outrageously irresponsible and downright shameful,” blogged Association of National Advertisers President Bob Liodice.
Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation, says the study failed 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].”
As to government attempts to get companies to shift advertising to healthier food choices, Snyder says that, outside of the FTC, which has already said it does not need any additional authority, “there is not a government body in a position to tell the food industry what products to advertise or not.”
Harkin spokeswoman Allison Dobson says the senator will push the industry and HHS to adopt the recommendations but will take the legislative route again if that proves unsuccessful.