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Restraint Urged In Junk-Food Ads Aimed at Kids

The federal government yesterday called on the food, advertising and entertainment industries to limit the marketing of junk food to kids.

However, two agencies said the industries should take all these steps voluntarily without further government regulation.

In a jointly released report on food marketing and obesity, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission said the industries should voluntarily set minimum nutrition standards for foods that can be marketed to children.

Noting that childhood obesity has doubled among young children and tripled among adolescents in the past 25 years, the report said companies must do more to promote more healthful products that are lower in calories and higher in nutritional benefits.

At the same time, it said, licensing of popular television and movie characters should be revised to foster the promotion of more nutritious, lower-calorie foods.

The recommendations were not as strong as those issued late last year by the Institute of Medicine that said Congress should mandate changes if food and beverage manufacturers fail to promote healthful products in the next two years. The national science advisory panel said licensed characters should be used only to promote healthful products.

Many of the report's recommendations follow efforts already underway. Kraft Foods Inc. last year announced it would stop advertising less nutritious products on television, radio and in magazines aimed at children under 12. Kraft and PepsiCo Inc. also have reformulated many of their products to reduce fat and trim portion sizes.

And the Children's Advertising Review Unit, the food and advertising industry's self-regulatory body that oversees commercials aimed at kids, already has begun reviewing its rules to see if it should expand its oversight. It is not only considering more stringent requirements on the newer media, including the Internet, but also new rules on the kinds of foods that should be marketed to kids. Up to now, CARU has only taken action against companies when it considered an ad to be deceptive or inappropriate for the intended age.

Food and advertising executives praised the report. "We are pleased that the report does not call for further government regulations" Wally Snyder, president of the American Advertising Federation said in a statement.

But advertising-industry critics say the recommendations are inadequate. Gary Ruskin, executive director of the public advocacy group Commercial Alert, called the report a "candy-coated present" for the food industry. "The report merely recommends more self-regulation, which has historically been a dismal failure."

The report said the government should not ban or restrict food advertisements aimed at children. Citing a previous unsuccessful FTC attempt in the 1970s to regulate TV food advertisements directed to children -- Congress stepped in and barred the agency from taking any such action -- the report said "it would be difficult for the government to develop advertising restrictions that are practical and effective."

The report says that children saw fewer paid television ads in 2004 -- 17,506, or a 12.5 percent drop from 1977 when they saw 20,000. But the report acknowledges that companies promote their products in far more diverse ways now than they did in 1977.

It pointed to the importance of character licensing, for example, noting that Kraft markets its Macaroni & Cheese in the shapes of many popular children's characters, such as Super Mario Brothers, Flintstones, Bugs Bunny and Friends, Rugrats, Pokémon, Blue's Clues, Scooby-Doo and SpongeBob SquarePants. "Use of such characters may allow food companies to spend substantially less on advertising in television and other media," the report said. It noted that General Mills trimmed its advertising budget for Betty Crocker Fruit Snacks from $6.6 million in 1998 to $26,000 after the company introduced Winnie the Pooh, Mickey Mouse and Disney Princess-based fruit snacks.


Caroline E. Mayer, Washington Post. May 3, 2006

Copyright © 2006 The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.