RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Food marketing to children would be a totally different ball game if Cap'n Crunch advertised carrots or whole-grain crackers, or if the Lucky Charms leprechaun advertised fruit, not fruit-flavored marshmallow cereal. But we don't live in that kind of world. According to a 2008 government study, breakfast cereals, restaurant foods, and snack foods represented approximately 70 percent of food marketing expenditures directed to children under 12. For teenagers, that same percentage was spent on carbonated sodas, restaurant foods, and other non-carbonated sugary drinks. And those dollars work. Research from Texas A&M University has found that, annually, more than $100 billion in food and beverage purchases are influenced by children, as are half of all cold cereal purchases.
A few weeks ago, the government finally stepped in to rectify this advertising imbalance. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published new guidelines on food marketing to children that are designed to reign in the ever-expanding universe of advertisements, advertisement-focused games, text messages, Facebook pages…the list goes on and on.
THE DETAILS: Though the new guidelines are voluntary, it's likely that food companies are going to comply. "If companies don't agree to do this voluntarily after they've had some time to incorporate the changes, there will probably be more support for the government to step in and make them mandatory," says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which studies food marketing.
The FTC is proposing fairly basic principles. The commission's guidelines—which give companies five to 10 years to comply—are that any foods marketed to children between the ages of 2 and 17 "make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet" and "contain limited amounts of nutrients that have a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium)." In order to meet the first criteria, foods that are marketed to this particular age group have to contain food from at least one of the following categories: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans. And they have to meet certain nutritional criteria: less than 15 percent calories from saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, no more than 13 grams of added sugars, and no more than 210 milligrams of sodium per serving.
The guidelines also cover virtually every venue that companies have been come to dominate—20 categories of advertising, marketing, and promotional activities that include not just TV and print advertising, but also social media, online games that serve as advertisements, text messages, product placement in movies and video games, and a variety of other electronic marketing gimmicks that have cropped up lately.
WHAT IT MEANS: The unusually long time frame the companies have been given has drawn the most ire from the public health community. And Harris says that a more ideal time frame would have been something like three years, rather than five. "It's not like this is a new concept to food marketers," she says. "They've heard the concerns about the products they're marketing to children, and they've said that they're improving them."
Aside from that, however, she's encouraged by what the FTC is doing. "The guidelines are really strong and a great step in the right direction," she says. "They really address the major issues that current self-regulation doesn't." She's referring to the industry's current food marketing initiative, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was launched in 2005 and currently has 17 companies (among them, General Mills, McDonald's, and Coca Cola) pledging to improve food marketing for "better for you" foods. "These companies have developed their own advertising criteria," she says, "and most of them are basically just tweaking their current product lines to make them slightly lower in fat or lower in sugar." One study from the University of Arizona found that 68.5 percent of marketing to children from these companies was for their least nutritious products. The FTC guidelines, she says, spell out specific nutritional criteria that need to be met so companies can't hide behind vague "better for you" descriptions.