New Food Ads: One Small Step

Major food manufacturers are trying to be more careful about their nutritional content and where their messages are seen. New guidelines that 10 major food companies will begin to follow aren't a solution to the problem of childhood obesity, but they are at least a step in the right direction.

Companies including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey, Unilever, McDonald's, General Mills and Kraft said they will stop advertising products that don't meet nutritional guidelines to kids under 12.

Reaction was cautiously optimistic. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has dragged some of these companies through the mud for years, called the new policy a “positive development,” although it also conceded that it will shield young viewers only from the “least healthful” of the companies' products. That may be, but at least it's a start.

Advertisers of kids products spend billions annually, so networks like Nickelodeon and Cartoon have a lot riding on the future shape of commercials aimed at little folks. But we all have a lot riding on the future shape of those kids, which needs to be thinner and healthier.

We'd rather the food companies make the rules than let the FCC, the FTC or Congress do it for them. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), for one, wants to force the FCC to tighten regulations on kids advertising, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has said he is ready to step in. We understand their desire to “do something” in the face of what is a national health crisis, but they need to let the government-industry partnership that coalesced around the issue do the job they have been charged with. Regulation of speech is often the first step for politicians when, thanks to the Constitution, it must be the last resort.

A few weeks ago, Kellogg's led all food makers with guidelines banning both the use of toys in connection with foods that don't meet guidelines and iconic characters hyping “bad food.” Kellogg's guidelines have specific nutritional minimums, and the company pledged to use the new rules to create healthier products. The industry guidelines announced last week mimic Kellogg's, which is to the industry's credit and, we hope, will lead to the improvement of kids' diets everywhere.

We're pleased food makers are taking voluntary steps to fix their commercial ways. We'd be a great deal happier, however, if they agreed to truly marry nutrition with marketing muscle. Is it impossible to make a bundle pushing a nutritious food even with a snappy jingle and cartoon spokesman?

And as for parents: Wake up and face your responsibility! All the government edicts and industry self-regulation won't stop kids from mimicking your dietary choices. Is eating better and modeling that behavior too much a sacrifice to save our kids from diabetes, heart disease and premature death?

Researchers believe 15% of all children are overweight; that number hits nearly 25% for Hispanic and black kids. In the past two decades, obesity has tripled among teenagers. Two-thirds—two-thirds—of all Americans are overweight or obese.

In short, the real problem is that many parents—who grew up watching and listening to the same kinds of ads our kids are bombarded with—eat as badly, and as thoughtlessly, as their children do. Government regulation of speech isn't the answer. Regulating snack consumption—ours as well as our children's—is. It may even turn out that, just like Mikey discovered on that old Life cereal commercial, we end up liking the stuff that's better for us.