Do You Think The Food and Beverage Industry Can Self-Regulate Its $1.6 Billion Marketing Towards Children and Adolescents?

A report of the Federal Trade Commission, Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities, and Self-Regulation, finds that 44 major food and beverage marketers spent $1.6 billion to promote their products to children under 12 and adolescents ages 12 to 17 in the United States in 2006.

The report finds that food advertising to youth is dominated by integrated advertising campaigns that combine traditional media, such as television, with previously unmeasured forms of marketing, such as packaging, in-store advertising, sweepstakes, and Internet. These campaigns often involve cross-promotion with a new movie or popular television program.

The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was launched in November 2006 by the Council of Better Business Bureaus to provide companies that advertise foods and beverages to children with a transparent and accountable advertising self-regulation mechanism. The Initiative is aimed at shifting the mix of advertising messaging directed to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.

The Initiative is a voluntary self-regulation program with many of the nation’s largest food and beverage companies as participants. The release of the FTC’s report coincided to the day with the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ first compliance report on its Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. The FTC’s report referred positively to the industry’s initiative and recommended that in light of this self-regulatory scheme, Congress need not impose regulation upon the industry. The Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood (CFACFC) issued a press release expressing disappointment with the FTC’s report.

The CFACFC is a national coalition of health care professionals, educators, advocacy groups and concerned parents who counter the harmful effects of marketing to children through action, advocacy, education, research, and collaboration. The CFACFC’s response says that the FTC report paints a frightening picture of American childhood immersed in sophisticated, integrated marketing campaigns for food and beverages. The food industry exploits every technology and technique at its disposal to insinuate its brands into the fabric of children’s lives.

Companies weave together television and internet advertising, brand licensing, product placement, in-store advertising, premiums, cross-promotions, and viral and in-school marketing to create omnipresent campaigns designed to take advantage of the most vulnerable consumers.

By the FTCs own admission there are some significant gaps: Companies report $46 million for character or cross-promotional brand licensing fees. However, most cross-promotional arrangements do not require a fee. In 2006, there were 81 media properties used by the target companies to promote their brands. These cross-promotions turn entire programs and movies into advertisements for the foods they promote, yet they are not counted as expenditures.

The total expenditure figure does not include spending for advertising and product placement on general audience programming watched by children, even though prime-time shows such as American Idol and The Simpsons typically have larger child and teen audiences than programs considered children’s shows. In-school advertising does not include regional and local or franchise spending for fast food companies.

For example, McDonald’s infamous report card advertising in Seminole County Florida was sponsored by a regional marketing association and would not have been counted in the FTC Report. As the FTC notes, internet advertising, particularly on company sponsored websites, is relatively inexpensive. Expenditure data does not begin to capture its impact the amount of time children spend with the sites and the frequency of their visits.

Given the concerning picture of food marketing’s infiltration of children’s lives painted by the FTC report, it is disappointing that they continue to perpetuate the myth that self-regulation can effectively rein in an industry whose profits rely on commercializing childhood.

Do you think that the industry will really place the interests of children ahead of its profit motive? Or will the industry do as little as possible for their public relations purposes? This is no small matter, as the FTC report was prompted by Congressional concern about the prevalence and morbidity of obesity in America.

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