Eleven of the nation's biggest food and beverage companies are junking ads for junk food on kids' TV shows.
Products include candy bars, soda pop and sugar-laden cereals, including such brands as Trix -- famously advertised for decades as being "for kids."
The voluntary pledge was announced at a Federal Trade Commission forum Wednesday morning in Washington. Companies aim to placate legislators who may crack down on food marketing amid rampant childhood obesity.
But critics say that the self-regulated pledges don't go far enough, and that advertising guidelines without an industrywide standard or method of enforcement won't do much good.
"We shouldn't be counting on the food industry to safeguard public health," said Susan Linn, a Harvard professor and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Corporations are bound by law to increase shareholder profits, not to promote the well-being of children."
The pledges, from companies such as Coca-Cola Co. and Hershey Co., vary widely but largely restrict advertising on programming or media targeted at kids younger than 12.
That's a sore point for critics, who say that kids don't watch only cartoons and Nickelodeon shows. According to Nielsen data, for instance, Fox's "American Idol" attracted 2.4 million viewers ages 2 to 11 years old in May. Coca-Cola is a sponsor of "American Idol," and its messages appear frequently throughout the program.
The other companies involved are Cadbury Adams USA, Campbell Soup Co., General Mills Inc., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Mars Inc., McDonald's USA, PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever.
The pledges all loosely follow U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines, but to varying degrees. General Mills, for instance, will stop marketing to kids anything with more than 12 grams of sugar and 175 calories per serving. But sugary cereals such as Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs still pass the test. And Kellogg's policy, which was introduced this year in response to threatened litigation, still allows Frosted Flakes cereal and Fruit Twistables snacks to be marketed to kids, said Margot Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"This gets rid of marketing of the very worst junk food," she said, "but it doesn't mean that only truly healthy foods are going to be marketed to kids."
The pledges are a good first step, Wootan said, but it is important for entertainment companies such as Nickelodeon Networks and the Cartoon Network that sell ads during children's programming to get involved.
In a statement, Nickelodeon called the moves "very important and positive steps forward in setting new nutritional guidelines and marketing standards."
Cartoon Network said, "We are encouraged these 11 companies are taking additional steps to provide kids with a healthier line of food options."
Other changes the companies will make include limiting the use of licensed characters to sell food to kids and introducing ads that use brands to promote more healthful lifestyle choices.
The move comes amid an increased threat of legislation to limit junk-food marketing aimed at children. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine published a report emphasizing the influence of food marketing on kids, which galvanized legislators into action. A task force on media and childhood obesity led by Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is working on a report on media and childhood obesity.
If the task force determines that these pledges do not go far enough, legislation may follow, said Gary Knell, the task force's volunteer chairman and the chief executive of Sesame Workshop, an educational organization.
But the companies say they can do it on their own, with some help from the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which will monitor the pledges. Participating companies have signed a contract and agreed to provide information showing how they've complied with the pledge, said C. Lee Peeler, executive vice president of the council.
"We're very committed to the concept of self-regulation," said John Faulkner, a spokesman for Campbell Soup. "All of our advertising is reviewed by our CEO, and we look very seriously at what the message is."
Campbell has pledged to reduce sodium in its kids' soups 25% and to market only "better-for-you" foods during programming targeted at children younger than 12.
Many of the companies, however, say that it is a parent's role to limit a child's intake of unhealthful foods, and that restricting advertising can only go so far.
"All of our products are wholesome and suitable for consumers of all ages," said Diana Garza, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola. "It's a question of balance."
Garza said that Coke did not want to overstep its bounds and interfere in parents' role in making decisions about their children's health.
Los Angeles mother Susan Sanford, whose 11- and 14-year-old kids have sometimes nagged her for products such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Yogos or Dibs, agrees. Sanford said that it's her role to decide which products they can and can't have.
She worries that pulling ad dollars from children's programming could affect the quality of the shows and wonders whether the pledge is useless anyway, since her kids see junk food ads nearly everywhere else.
"Media is everywhere," she said.