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Industry Group Raises Public Profile on Obesity Issue
September 16, 2005
By Ira Teinowitz

WASHINGTON (AdAge.com) -- Under continuing pressure from legislators and advocates for family health, the ad industry is stepping up its review of children's marketing.

The National Advertising Review Council (NARC) yesterday said it will expand its panel of academic experts to help set standards for reviewing ads and has asked its Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) to take a closer look into several controversial areas: product placement, use of cartoon characters in ads and the medium of "advergaming."

The NARC is the marketing industry’s self-regulatory body, which hears complaints about ads and is run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. It is funded, in part, by the three major advertising associations: the Association of National Advertisers, the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the American Advertising Federation.

NARC's president-CEO, James R. Guthrie, said the efforts were a response to some of the concerns raised at a recent joint Federal Trade Commission and Department of Health and Human Services workshop that looked into the role marketing plays in the childhood obesity crisis. He called the steps taken “the most significant new issues undertaken by CARU” since it examined children’s privacy in 1996.

“It’s a sign of fear," said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, an advocacy organization against the commercialization of childhood. "Advertisers are very afraid that they will be held responsible for producing an epidemic of marketing-related diseases in our kids.” He called the changes a "stream of verbiage that tries to cloak doing nothing.”

In other steps, NARC and CARU plan to make filing complaints against marketers easier and more visible by including links to complaint forms on local Better Business Bureaus Web sites.

NARC also said it would make it easier for non-profit organizations to review the results of CARU’s investigations and offer ad pre-screenings to companies that aren’t members of either NARC or CARU.

The review of advergaming advertising practices has been under way for several months, with results and recommendations due later this month, but the forming of a task force to review the appropriate use of cartoon characters and product placement within children's programming are both new initiatives.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association recently suggested a ban on paid product placement in some children’s programming.

“We are pleased,” said the association's president-CEO, C. Manly Molpus, calling the response thoughtful and quick.

But Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist who founded the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said the ad industry “is starting to act like the tobacco industries of the 1980s and 1990s. It’s a sign that the movement to limit or ban advertising to kids is beginning to succeed.” But, she added, the actions don’t go far enough. “It’s the government, not the corporations, who should be the guardians of public health.”

“There is no appropriate use of cartoon characters to sell anything to kids," Ms. Linn continued. "And, technically, the problem with product placement is not placement on kid's shows; it is placement on shows with high kid audiences.” She cited high children's viewership for American Idol as an example. The show is widely regarded as the poster child of the product-placement business.


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