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FTC Asked to Conduct a Broader Food Marketing Inquiry

Critics of the media's food marketing practices are asking the Federal Trade Commission to make sure it conducts an inquiry that goes beyond TV spots for snack foods and digs deeper into the "marketing ecosystem" that has developed in the digital age.

In comments to the FTC Thursday, The Center for Digital Democracy, Children Now and the Berkeley Media Studies Health group argue that there is a need for government intervention in advertising to make sure that marketers "serve the health of our children rather than undermine it."

In asking the FTC and Congress to think outside the television box, the Center For Digital Democracy's Jeff Chester argues that while the policy debate has been focusing on TV commercials, food marketers have been focusing on capturing information and building kids consumer profiles via a host of media, including cell phones, advergaming, virtual worlds, and more.

The compelling government interest in that type of regulation is the childhood obesity problem--which marketers and activists alike agree is a public health crisis. Marketers and the media argue self-regulation and education are the answer, but that is an impetus to the goverment-industry task force launched last year by Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin and others.

Friday is the deadline in the third round of comments on what kind of information the FTC should collect from marketers for its food marketing report . Chester and company say it should include the "full extent" of those companies digital marketing and research, including to Hispanic and Latino groups they argue are a focus of some marketers.

They also want regular Department of Health and Human Services and FTC monitoring of digital media marketing.

In a study included in their comments to the FTC, they cite a number of examples of viral marketing--including by Coke, McDonald's, Burger King, and Sprite--to capture kids where they watch, text and surf what they call a "relentless onslaught of food and beverage marketing."

For those not following the progress of the FTC's food marketing study on a daily basis, here is a recap provided by an incredibly helpful FTC staffer:

The commission was directed by Congress in its 2005 budget appropriation to gather information on the issue. Having gone through three rounds of comment over the past year on what data it should collect, the FTC is now preparing to send out subpoenas to collect that data. It is seeking the information from 44 food and beverage manufacturers, distributors, marketers and fast food (they call it "quick service) restaurants "marketing and selling the categories of food and beverage products that appear to be advertised to children and adolescents most frequently."

There is no timetable for when the report is issued, but the FTC does plan a July 18 workshop on food marketing to kids to get an update on industry self-regulation. That will be about the same time a government-industry task force on media marketing and childhood obesity plans to give its recommendations on how best to team up to combat the growing health crisis.

The FTC has already made some suggestions--and the industry has responded--in a report that stemmed from a workshop it held on food marketing back in 2005 .