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Obama Administration Urges Media Companies to Limit Snack Food Marketing

Could cable and broadcast advertisers have their snack food ads blocked in an effort to combat childhood obesity?

That recommendation was put on the table by the White House Tuesday (May 11).

The Obama administration is urging media companies and advertisers to step up their efforts to limit snack food marketing, and wants the FCC to step in if those efforts are not sufficient.

A report released by the White House Task Force On Childhood Obesity makes a number of recommendations to everyone from dentists to the USDA, but in the media and food and beverage section, it sends a message to the FCC and industry about potentially using "technology" to limit exposure to "unhealthy food advertisements."

Among the suggestions to the FCC in its inquiry into revising its kids TV rules for the digital age was rating
commercials so they could be blocked by the V-chip.

Task Force Chair Melody Barnes called it an "action plan" for "solving" the problem within a generation. The surgeon general has labeled obesity as one of the nation's most pressing health--and health care--challenges, and there is a danger that the current generation could be the first whose life expectancy is shorter than their parents.

Among the task force recommendations were that 1) "All media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy and consistent with science-based nutrition standards"; 2) "The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children." and 3) "Industry should provide technology to help consumers distinguish between advertisements for healthy and unhealthy foods and to limit their children's exposure to unhealthy food advertisements."

The first two recommendations are put in the category of private industry action, but the third, that includes
potential blocking of commercials, is pitched as a government/industry initiative.

And if those don't get the job done? "If voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and
beverages to children do not yield substantial results," says the report, "the FCC could consider revisiting and
modernizing rules on commercial time during children's programming." The goal would be that, within three years, the majority of food and beverage ads directed at kids promote healthy foods, and that within that same period, licensed characters (SpongeBob, Dora) would only be used to promote healthy foods.

The report goes beyond kids programming to cite snack food and beverage ads in prime time programs popolar with young people, citing American Idol and The Simpsons as two examples. "The FCC could also urge these industries to create innovative technologies that allow parents to block unhealthy food and beverage advertising from all programming."

The food and beverage industry has already taken steps to limit snack food ads and boost nutritional content, a point made by Elaine Kolish, director of that effort, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative Director. She tried to put the spotlight on industry efforts. "The 16 major food and beverage producers participating in the CFBAI look forward to helping bolster one of the pillars of the Let's Move Initiative, empowering parents by building on the success that has already been achieved through advertising self-regulation," she said. "Under the CFBAI, four companies are not engaging in advertising primarily directed to children under 12 and the other 12 companies rely on sound, responsible nutrition standards to govern all of their child-directed advertising decisions."

The report acknowledges those efforts, but also points out that a Federal Trade Commission review of that self-regulation found more still needed to be done. "Some media and entertainment companies have adopted policies limiting the types of foods for which they will license their popular characters," says the report. "In addition, one company has set nutritional standards for the food advertising it accepts on child-directed programming.  However, not all companies with popular entertainment properties have instituted similar policies, and the ones that have often use varying guidelines."