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FTC: No Rise In Junk-Food Ads

In a move sure to give ammunition to food marketers, the Federal Trade Commission said the number of TV ads for “junk” foods that kids see has not increased over the past 30 years.

Critics of TV food marketing have argued that a rise in such ads corresponds to the rise in childhood obesity and point to their own data that diverges dramatically from the FTC's.

“Our data do not support the view that children are exposed to more TV food ads today,” said the FTC, saying that viewing of such ads has fallen by about 9%.

The FTC also says that there were not more ads for low-nutrition foods in 2004 (when the study was conducted) than in 1977, although it essentially concedes that that means those foods dominate just as much in 2004 as they did in 1977, with almost 95% of the ads for fast foods and restaurants; cereal, mostly highly sugared; desserts; sweets; snacks; and sweetened drinks.

The report's findings notwithstanding, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras has warned the industry to trim the food-marketing fat, citing the obesity problem. The announcement was actually the formal release of information the FTC first teased at a conference on obesity and food marketing back in July 2005.

So, why did it take almost two years to release the study? “Data analysis can sometimes take a long time to do, to make sure you cross all the t's and dot the i's,” says Michael Salinger, director of the FTC's bureau of economics. The principal authors of the study were economists with the bureau.

Says the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Adonis Hoffman, “We have to believe that the FTC has taken a comprehensive, objective look at advertising to kids and their conclusions suggest that the connection between marketing and obesity is more complex and tenuous than many claim. I think you have to look at the FTC data and compare it to the Kaiser data and ask very tough questions.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation concluded in a 2005 study released in March that kids 2-12 are seeing more than double FTC's figure, or some 12,000 junk-food ads.

The FTC concedes that its 2004 calculation of kids' ad viewing is at odds with some others, but it sticks with its figures.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says one explanation for the FTC figures, if they are correct, is that companies are turning to other forms of marketing, including “spokescharacters” on packaging and online “advergaming,” as well as marketing in schools. “So you don't need as much TV advertising,” she says. Overall marketing aimed at children has doubled over the last decade or so, she says, but “TV is only one way in which companies market junk food to kids.”

In fact, the FTC release comes as the agency prepares to collect information on all forms of marketing to kids, including online.