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Food Advertising Pushed Into Harsh Spotlight

A week after Sen. Hillary Clinton and other officials leveled broadsides at the U.S. food marketing industry for its children-related advertising practices, the industry's own watchdog organization is announcing its intention to more aggressively police its members' youth-oriented ad practices.

Last week's rounds of high-profile criticism from leading congressional figures, the charismatic governor of California, the Federal Trade Commission and the Kaiser Family Foundation clearly raised the threat of potential government regulatory intervention to a new level. Mrs. Clinton, for instance, paired her public criticisms of food marketers with the announcement that she was joining Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to reintroduce legislation to increase funding for research into the impact of media on children, including the impact of media content and advertising on food choices.

CARU stiffens guidelines

Yesterday the advertising industry's own organization -- the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) -- announced its intentions to enforce a new level of advertising oversight as it also released the findings of its reviews of recent Burger King Corp. and Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. advertising.

“As the concerns change, we begin to apply [the guidelines] differently,” said CARU's director, Elizabeth Lascoutx. “One of our guidelines was that representation of food products should be made so as to encourage sound use of a product toward healthy development of children and development of good nutritional practices.”

As CARU faulted ads of both companies for failing to meet its new guideline philosophy, it was also seemed to be sending a clear message to the industry as well as its government critics.

Burger King ads cited

Burger King's Kids Meals ads and Web site were cited for picturing a double cheeseburger, fries and a Coke. CARU said an ad, titled “Chomp Chomp & Away,” from Campbell-Mithun, Minneapolis, did not picture other alternative foods and could confuse children about their ability to order different entries and side dishes and still qualify to receive the free toy offered with each Kids Meals.

In the past that would have just prompted CARU to ask the company to make clear that other entries and sides are available.

But this time CARU asked Burger King not only to mention alternatives, but also to aggressively promote healthier alternative or, "if applicable, specifically highlight the lower-calorie food product or products." A Burger King spokeswoman yesterday said the company had already made changes in its Kids Meals advertising.

Wrigley ads cited

In a second case, involving Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co.’s “Twisted Sweet” advertising, CARU cited print and Web ad components of the campaign. Ads in Disney Adventures magazine were divided and appeared as two separate ads for two separate products, one Juicy Fruit and a second for either a new boy band or a new movie, with each ad driving readers to a Web site address. At that Web site, if the child clicked on the link to see the boy band or movie material, he or she was instead delivered to a Juicy Fruit Web page playing a commercial.

CARU additionally cited the Web commercial itself -- it depicted a medical dummy that comes to life, steals gum and is then chased and killed by a teenager. CARU said that the ad could be too disturbing for younger children. Wrigley agreed to pull the online commercial.

CARU said that overall it also found the print-to-Web campaign potentially misleading and asked Wrigley to cease running the ads in children's magazines. Wrigley agreed and told CARU it was "in the process of reevaluating" the target audience, Ms. Lascoutx said.

A Wrigley spokesman said the company's reference to "reevaluating" its advertising was to the "twisted sweet" versions of Juicy Fruit and the appropriateness of ad placements for the teen-directed product.

FTC studies possible regulations

Last week, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras announced the commission would hold a summer industry workshop focused on the issue of food advertising and industry self-regulation. At the same time that Mrs. Clinton and her colleagues announced new legislation to fund further research into food advertising, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced a press conference for later this week at which he plans to formally reintroduce his measure giving the FTC authority to order and enforce limits on food advertising aimed at children.


Ira Teinowitz, AdAge.com. March 15, 2005

Copyright © 2004, Crain Communications Inc.. All rights reserved.