Industry Self-Regs Could Trump Task Force

The vaunted Task Force on Childhood Obesity was launched with much fanfare at a Capitol Hill press conference in fall 2006. Given all the controversy about the way snack foods were marketed to kids, the group had a full agenda and a pledge to move forward.

But after endless delays, extended deadlines and squabbling between industry and activists, the group has not produced the promised road map for an industry partnership that would get the blessing of legislators. Perhaps that's because the task force, whose five members include FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, hasn't met in months, according to a source.

This hasn't stopped the industry from moving forward with what it says are improvements, much the way a simple threat from busy parents can sometimes lead children to do their chores.

“They have just not been able to hammer together a consensus between the consumer groups and the industry to get a final report,” said one member of the task force who asked not to be identified. The problem remains that the industry wants to highlight all the self-regulatory efforts by advertisers, food companies and the media that have already been put in place, while children's activists and at least one prominent legislator want more.

Appropriately enough, on the FCC's Website dedicated to the task force, the latest entry under “recent actions” is dated Aug. 7, 2007.

Still, ad industry representatives assert that the absence of a report does not reflect current strides.

“It was important to have policymakers put a stake in the ground on this issue,” says Adonis Hoffman, senior VP and counsel of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

“Industry got the message and responded, working for the first time in a cooperative way with consumer health organizations and the media. They all came to the table as equal players and hammered out some very significant changes in the way food is marketed to kids.”

Elaine Kolish, director of the Better Business Bureau's Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, agrees. “Our own initiative grew from 10 or 11 companies to 13, representing the vast majority of TV advertising food to kids,” though she points out the initiative was in the works before the task force was created. Major food companies including McDonald's, Coke, Kellogg's and Kraft, have agreed to devote “at least 50% of their advertising directed to kids under 12 to the promotion of healthier dietary choices and/or messages that encourage good nutrition or healthy lifestyles.” Meanwhile, media companies have also weighed in, agreeing to limit the use of licensed characters in food ads.

“Our industry feels quite comfortable in the progress that has been made,” says Hoffman. He pointed to the Food and Beverage Initiative, which demonstrates that food companies and agencies have taken steps to “more responsibly market their products.”

“The task force has already achieved its purposes,” says Dan Jaffe, executive VP of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers, which is also a member of the task force. And without firing a shot? “But it has fired a shot. There was an enormous amount of effort. And it certainly helped bring people together to talk about the key issues and to keep people focused on a critical question.”

So, has there been any pressure from Washington to finally release a report? “Some rumblings below the surface,” said an ad industry source.

It may not remain that way. Ed Markey, chairman of the House Telecommunications & Internet Subcommittee and a driving force behind TV advertising guidelines to kids in the Children's Television Act, did some rumbling above the surface last week.

“Industry pledges made last year were positive steps forward,” he told B&C. In fact, many of those pledges came after Markey put pressure on the industry. “But more needs to be done,” he added.

Markey said he looked forward to any reports from the task force “on their own timeline.” But he reiterated that he thinks the FCC has the authority to step in. “I believe the commission should take action on its own if a timely, meaningful report from the task force is not forthcoming.”

A majority of the FCC's commissioners, including the task force members Martin, Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate and Democrat Michael Copps, indicated to Congress last summer that they will be willing to step in if a self-regulatory framework could not be hammered out. However, they don't favor government standards on what foods should be marketed to kids, and all said that it would depend on the degree to which marketers and media companies stepped up.

Lots of companies have since done so. For example only weeks after the Hill hearing where those commissioners weighed in, Discovery Kids and Nickelodeon said they would limit the use of licensed characters to ads for healthy foods. Cartoon Network followed suit soon after, and ION Media Networks decided to cut ads for “unhealthy” foods from all of its kids' programming, joining a growing list of companies that saw the handwriting on the blackboard.

E-mail comments to

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.