Kraft Foods, the maker of kid favorites such as Oreos, has promised to curtail… (Tim Boyle / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON--Advertisers and food and beverage industry officials called the government's new guidelines for advertising directed toward children a "reckless" maneuver in light of today's fragile economy.
After Congress asked the Federal Trade Commission, along with three other federal agencies, to develop a strategy to target childhood obesity, the FTC released a set of guidelines in April. They call on advertisers to encourage children to choose healthy foods and to limit the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars and sodium in food marketed to children.
That could mean a facelift for cartoon characters like Tony the Tiger, who promotes the cereal Frosted Flakes. One serving of the flakes contains 12 grams of sugar – four more than the guidelines suggest is healthy for kids in a serving of cereal.
On Friday, industry officials pushed back, saying the guidelines would eliminate virtually all advertising presently directed toward kids under the age of 18. Only 12 of the 100 most consumed foods in the U.S. would meet the FTC's criteria, said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.
"In discussing this with a broad cross-section of industry, the reaction is that the proposals here are so stringent and so unrelated to any question of whether the products that would be created would be palatable to consumers," Jaffe said. "Just because you meet an arbitrary set of numbers doesn't mean you can come up with products that will move off the shelves."
If advertising takes as big a hit as industry officials expect, 74,000 jobs could be lost in 2011, said Mike Raimondi, vice president of IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting company. Between 2011 and 2015, moreover, the cumulative lost sales in the food and beverage supply chain would amount to $152 billion, Raimondi said.
But the FTC and nutrition advocates note that the guidelines are voluntary, though food companies will be under pressure to follow them. In 1980, Congress stripped the FTC of its rulemaking authority to police junk ads directed toward kids, said Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit health advocacy group.
"Far from banning the Easter bunny, as the industry's fear-mongering goes, the Interagency Working Group—at the instruction of Congress—simply proposed a voluntary set of nutrition standards that food companies could (or could not) adopt as part of their existing self-regulatory program," Wootan said in a statement. "It's a shame the industry is using such overheated rhetoric to fight reasonable, voluntary nutrition guidelines aimed at reducing kids' risk of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases."
And while companies have agreed to self-regulation on food marketing, it's hardly working – "junk" still accounts for 80% of food advertisements targeted toward kids, Wootan said later in an interview.
Given the deluge of information coming from all directions in a media-saturated age, the FTC's guidelines could play an important role in attacking childhood obesity.
"Current marketing campaigns for foods pervade every aspect of a child's life, from TV, to product placements in movies, to social medial like Facebook, to their cell phone, and even to their school," FTC spokeswoman Elizabeth Lordan said.