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Media Ready to Back Childhood Obesity Plan

Food marketing is likely to get renewed attention in Washington over the coming weeks as government agencies try to figure out a battle plan against childhood obesity.

Ad agency lobbyists say they support the initiative, especially if it means more emphasis on exercise and phys ed in schools, and not on restrictions on advertising as some kind of magic cure for the obesity problem.

President Obama last week signed an executive order mandating the creation of a childhood obesity task force. He also gave the task force 90 days to come up with an action plan, and urged “a generation” to solve the problem through a “coordinated federal response.” The group will be chaired by Lawrence Summers, assistant to the president for economic policy.

While there was no mention of involvement by the FCC or the Federal Trade Commission, the task force will include the chiefs of whatever agencies Summers chooses. Also involved will be the secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Education departments; the director of the Office of Management and Budget; and heads of other groups.

The issue also has the attention of Michelle Obama, who has made it a priority through a “Let's Move” campaign. “She will encourage involvement by [figures] from every sector—the public, nonprofit and private sectors, as well as parents and youth—to help support and amplify the work of the Federal Government in improving the health of our children,” the president wrote.

Media companies were eager to associate themselves with the public-education portion of the initiative. The First Lady appeared on Good Morning America to promote the campaign, which will also be featured under NBCU's iconic “The More You Know” umbrella public-service effort. Nickelodeon pledged its support as well.

Childhood puts a strain on the health-care system, the president pointed out in a memo to the heads of all departments and agencies including the FCC and FTC: “We must act now to improve the health of our nation's children and avoid spending billions of dollars treating preventable disease.”

In the wake of FTC scrutiny of the issue and the Surgeon General's warnings that childhood obesity was the top health threat to kids, food marketers came up with the Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in November 2006. The move was meant to promote healthier products, limit snack food advertising that targets kids under 12 and push for additional steps. The FTC is vetting the results of that self-regulation.

In December, the FTC teamed with a group comprising representatives of the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Agriculture on draft recommendations on nutrition guidelines for marketing food to kids. The recommendations include expanding the definition of “children” to include 13-to-18-year-olds.

A government-industry childhood obesity task force, which was launched when the FCC was headed by Kevin Martin and included members of Congress, major food marketers and media executives, failed to come to an agreement on strategies for addressing the issue. “The consumer groups felt that what the advertising community was offering was insufficient, and there was no ability to finally broker an agreement,” says Dan Jaffe, executive VP of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. He hopes that the new task force will provide another opportunity for that cooperation, particularly something that involves the government.

According to Dick O'Brien, executive VP and director of government relations for the American Association of Advertising Agencies, marketers are part of the solution. “We're delighted that Mrs. Obama is doing it,” he told B&C. “She really can bring an enormous moral force to solve this global epidemic. We have volunteered to work with her as a communications industry. Basically, we are all pretty enthusiastic about it, and we're in conversation to try to see just how we can be part of the solution.”

Jaffe agrees. “Our initial reaction is extremely positive,” he says, but adds that people should be aware of the self-regulatory steps the industry has taken and that they “should not get diverted into regulatory cul-de-sacs with approaches that will not work.”

Jaffe remains concerned about the draft recommendations from the FTC and others, which he expects will be released as a proposal for comment by month-end. “That proposal certainly needs to be looked at very closely because it is extraordinarily restrictive,” he says. For example, cereals with more than 13 grams of added sugar could not be advertised to kids. As Jaffe puts it: “A lot of things that would be perfectly sensible for children's diets wouldn't be able to be advertised.”

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