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FTC Could Set Standards for Food Marketing Aimed at Teens

Omnibus Appropriations Bill Calls for Study, Broadens Scope

Ira Teinowitz
Advertising Age
March 11, 2009

WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- One little bit of language in the omnibus appropriations bill signed today could shift the government's focus on food marketing and childhood obesity from kids under 12 to everyone under 18, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of dollars of food, beverage and fast-food advertising on TV.

Besides funding government agencies and a number of pork-barrel projects, the bill signed by President Barack Obama today calls for several government studies, including one examining whether the government should set standards for determining which foods are healthy and appropriate to market to youths as old as 17.

Late Tuesday, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the study's sponsors, inserted a statement in the Congressional Record indicating that the under-17 language should be considered a mistake. "I think it would be more appropriate to limit the scope ... to children under 12," he said. The legislation, though, still has original language.

Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was the other sponsor for the study. His communications director, Kate Cyrul, took a different tack. "Childhood obesity is on the rise and nearly at an epidemic proportion. And we know the obesity rate does not end with children [who are] 13. It affects all school-age children," she said. "Considering the health risks that are involved and the potential impact on our nation as a whole, it would be irresponsible to only focus on a portion of school-age youth."

Call for research

The bill calls for the Federal Trade Commission, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an "Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children," according to a report attached to the legislation. "The Working Group is directed to conduct a study and develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of food when such marketing targets children who are 17 years old or younger or when such food represents a significant component of the diets of children," it says. Further, the "Working Group will determine the scope of the media to which such standards should apply," asking that the group report back to Congress by July 15, 2010.

"This proposal is completely unnecessary," said Scott W. Openshaw, director-communications for the Grocer Manufacturers Association. He said the FTC is monitoring the effectiveness of the industry initiative.

"Taxpayer dollars and agency time could be made much better use of. Besides, the proposal -- the way it is written -- not only reinvents the wheel, it does so poorly with broad, misdirected language that goes far beyond marketing to children. Too far."

Many marketers have already reined in their food and fast-food advertising. Under Capitol Hill pressure, major food and fast-food companies launched the Children's Food & Beverage Initiative in 2006 and altered their ad mix and their products to sell healthier products to children under 12. Candy-makers pulled their ads from such media.

Standards needed

There has been some criticism, including from the Federal Trade Commission, that even as the voluntary industry action led to healthier products being advertised to children, each company was creating its own standard for what healthy meant. In other words, the government should step in and set standards.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, for one, is happy about the language in the bill. "I think it's terrific," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for CSPI. She noted that the FTC has urged development of more uniform standards for what foods are and aren't appropriate to advertise. "This would set up a mechanism to do that."

She also said the teen audience could be more at risk. "In a lot of way, teens are more vulnerable than younger kids because they have more options to make choices out of their parents' supervision," she said.

Food groups concerned

Food manufacturers and advertising groups, however, were concerned. They traditionally have said that there are no good or bad foods, and that any food can be fine with the right diet and exercise regiment.

Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said setting standards for what should be advertised and then extending the focus to teens is troublesome.

"When you start to look at rules that would affect kids almost old enough to vote, it could raise major issues," he said. "There is a good food-bad food approach and if they are going to say some specific food is not OK to advertise, it would be unconstitutional."

The omnibus bill also calls for a second study, this one by the FTC, of "virtual-reality web programs" and whether legislation is needed to prevent minors from accessing explicit content on the sites.

The legislation does have one increase in government advertising. Under the bill, the youth anti-drug advertising program of the White House gets increased to $70 million from $60 million.

 

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