Skip to main content

FTC: Food Marketing Guidelines Should Not Be Extended to Cover Kids 12-17

The Federal Trade Commission is revising working group recommendations on food marketing to narrow the guidelines to kids 11 and younger, rather than applying them to teens -- except in cases of in-school marketing.

It has also reexamined the approach to criteria for assessing whether marketing is targeting kids to make sure it is not overinclusive (or underinclusive), and says the result will be pretty much what food marketing self-regs already call for so that they cover "all the most important aspects of children's marketing without being unduly restrictive."

That is according to testimony from David Vladeck, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, for an Oct. 12 hearing on the working group guidelines, which the FTC has signaled will be revised in light of the thousands of comments it got, including complaints from industry that extending the age to 17-year-olds was definitely not the way to go.

"[W]e cannot ask more of food marketers than they can reasonably deliver if we expect their continued cooperation in this effort," he says.

The FTC has said all along it favored self-regulation and that recommendations of the interagency working group were voluntary guidelines subject to adjustment. It had already signaled in a letter to the Hill and the agencies that made up the working group two weeks ago that those adjustments were coming.

The principles, which themselves are only recommendations to Congress, were initially released for tire-kicking by the industry and others last April, there was immediate concern from food marketers and media companies that the principles were overbroad, overly restrictive, and swept up healthy foods by casting too wide a net.

Vladeck plans to tell the House Commerce Subcommittee, in a hearing entitled "Food Marketing: Can ‘Voluntary' Government Restrictions Improve Children's Health?" that the net has been narrowed after vetting  29,000 comments, 28,00 from which it said were "write-I" campaigns supporting the guidelines.  He said the guidelines are being significantly revised to address industry concerns, and have "much in common" with guidelines submitted by the industry-backed Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. That is an industry self-regulatory regime launched after the FTC put a spotlight on food marketing issues back in 2006.

Vladeck points out in his testimony, according to a copy of the document, that although the original recommendations "broadly covered all forms of marketing to children ages 2 to 17 years... The Commission has taken a fresh look at the marketing recommendations and is contemplating revising them to more narrowly focus on those marketing techniques that our studies suggest are used most extensively to market to children." For example, he said, "FTC staff has determined that, with the exception of certain in-school marketing activities, it is not necessary to encompass adolescents ages 12 to 17 within the scope of covered marketing." He points out that it is often tough to distinguish between marketing to teens and to a general or adult audience, a point industry marketers made in opposing expanding the age range.

Vladeck said the FTC also does not think the guidelines should apply to sponsorships of sporting events and  says the FTC does not plan to recommend that marketers remove branded characters from packaging that does not meet food guidelines.

Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, which has been pushing the government to get tough on food marketing to kids, was not pleased.

"The White House and the FTC have shamelessly caved into the demands of the junk food marketing lobby," he told B&C/Multi. "The Administration has decided to ignore the science, and place the interests of the largest food companies over the health of young people."