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Food Police Target Food Marketers

Responsibility for the skyrocketing number of obese kids falls largely with food-industry marketers and their TV campaigns, say Washington's food police. Calling for tougher government oversight of the marketing of snacks and soda to children, they are particularly upset by two new and controversial practices: paid product placements and interactive games featuring trademark characters.

In response, the food marketers have promised to police themselves. But if the reaction from their high-ranking critics in Washington is any indication, their efforts have fallen short. Food manufacturers proposed that the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU)—the industry-backed arm of the Better Business Bureau that reviews TV advertising for voluntary compliance with industry policies—be responsible for monitoring the new marketing practices.

Rather than surrender the marketing power—not to mention the licensing fees—program producers are seeking out more-healthful products for partnerships. Last week, Nickelodeon agreed to let various frozen-vegetable brands use SpongeBob SquarePants as pitchman. (Because SpongeBob lives in a pineapple, perhaps a partnership with a fruit company is in the offing as well.) Those deals, though, don't prevent food marketers from using SpongeBob to sell candy.

Expand CARU Responsibilities

The proposals for product placements and interactive games were unveiled in Washington last week by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) during a two-day Federal Trade Commission workshop on food marketing and childhood obesity. CARU's duties would be expanded to include setting guidelines for product placements in children's shows and limits on the interactive games, known as “adver-games.” GMA also recommended making it easier for parents to file complaints via toll-free lines.

The association's suggestions follow internal CARU efforts to monitor marketing. It established a task force to recommend an appropriate approach to adver-gaming (a report is expected later this year), streamlined its complaint process so parents can e-mail staff directly, and added child nutrition experts to its Academic Advisory Board.

Call for Oversight

Nonetheless, a growing chorus is calling for more government oversight. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who spoke during last week's conference, was all for limiting product placements and games, which have been criticized for being even more manipulative than traditional ads because they are perceived by kids as integral parts of the programs.

Harkin blasted the GMA for not supporting enforcement powers for CARU, such as the right to fine violators of its guidelines. “If CARU is the model, that is a non-starter,” he said. “CARU, frankly, has become a poster child for how not to conduct self-regulation. It has no real independence, no sanction authority, no teeth.”

Harkin is sponsoring legislation that would reinstate the FTC's explicit authority to regulate advertising to children, a power eliminated in 1980. FTC Chairman Deborah Majoras believes that food marketers should be more aggressive in weeding out objectionable practices. Though not threatening tougher FTC action, she warned that other government bodies—possibly even Congress—could intercede: “If the industry fails to demonstrate a good-faith commitment to this issue and to take positive steps, others may step in.”

The food industry says blaming its marketing practices is unfair, citing government research showing that both the number of ads targeting children and the total number of advertising minutes children consume have declined steadily over the past few decades, despite steady increases in the time kids spend watching TV.

The industry also maintains that its self-policing efforts are working. In March, for instance, Burger King agreed to depict low-calorie options in TV ads for its Kids Meals after CARU complained that only double cheeseburgers were being shown.