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Food Pitches Face Time-Out on Kids' Nets

Advertising to children is once again in play as an issue in Washington, as activists scrutinize possible links between food ads and obesity, and policymakers contemplate limits on interactive advertising.

Those speaking at a July 20 forum in Washington, D.C., included two U.S. senators, three of five members of the Federal Communications Commission, and a mix of academics and executives. The event was organized by Children Now, an advocacy group critical of food advertising to children. Aside from the execs, few had kind words for a media environment that, according to Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona, bombards kids with ads for junk food—at a time when childhood obesity rates are soaring.

Kunkel calculates that half of the ads on kids’ TV are for food, and 85 percent of those are for junk. If a kid bought each food advertised in a typical day of viewing, it would take six weeks to consume the haul without exceeding dietary guidelines, he said. “This is a significant public health challenge,” Kunkel said.

Although there are no immediate proposals in Washington to ban ads based on their content, proposals abound to limit advertisers’ use of interactive media—especially the emerging possibility that children watching regulated broadcast digital TV will, with a click of the remote, jump to rules-free Internet selling sites.

FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein said the agency should “severely limit” click-through TV advertising. His fellow Democrat, Commissioner Michael Copps, suggested that “at a minimum” parents be able to turn off such services on their TV sets. A provision before the U.S. Senate goes further, proposing a ban on links to commercial matter during kids programming and during ad breaks. The Association of National Advertisers served notice it thinks that’s a bad idea, telling key senators in a July 17 letter that “media innovations…will be strangled” by the interactivity ban and other proposed restrictions. “This far-reaching legislative language is a ‘solution’ in search of a problem,” said ANA executive vp Dan Jaffe.

The debate coincided with the release by the Kaiser Family Foundation last week of what it called the first survey of online food marketing to children. According to the foundation, which also hosted the Children Now forum, 85 percent of leading food brands that use TV advertising to attract children also are targeting them with Web sites. The study examined 96 food brands and found that while most sites contained a single brand, more than one-fourth featured multiple brands—with an average of nine brands per site. Games, promotions, viral marketing efforts, membership opportunities and movie and TV tie-ins were among the features of the sites, which aim to capture kids in ways that a TV spot cannot. For example, at popsicle.com, part of Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream, players can reach extra levels as their skill improves. At Nestle’s www.wonka.com, Wonka Club Dub offers visitors not only games, but “a personally flavored home page,” special screen savers and e-cards.

It all was enough to put wind into the sails of media critics at the Children Now forum, who pointed out that children under the age of 6 cannot distinguish between programming and commercials. “We are conducting a massive experiment on our kids, and parents have not given their consent,” said Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). She called for dedicated federal funding for research into media’s effects on children. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) said sophisticated scanning could reveal how video stimulates children’s brains. “As we continue to hear deep concerns about television and our children, and we look at how the brain is wired, you will see this issue continue to come forward,” Brownback said. Republican FCC Commissioner Deborah Tate said children are so susceptible to marketers’ blandishments that at times advertising to them “may not be entirely fair.”

Execs on the Kaiser panel accentuated the positive. Matt Palmer, senior vp, marketing for the Disney Channel, touted its limited sponsorship, its lack of commercials and the forthcoming expiration of its marketing pact with McDonald’s. He faced a quick rejoinder from Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who said from the audience that spinoff channel Toon Disney is replete with food ads. “They undermine parents’ efforts to feed their children healthy diets,” Wootan said. Palmer said Disney is always reviewing its inventory.

Wootan’s center has served notice in Massachusetts it intends to sue Kellogg and Viacom, owner of Nickelodeon, over advertising of sugary, salty, high-fat foods. Last week, Nickelodeon announced it would license the characters SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer to boost sales of organic edamame, adding to deals that have popular characters gracing supermarket displays of pears, apples and cherries. Sherice Torres, vp, Nickelodeon and Viacom consumer products, said her company would “continue to look for opportunities to use our stable of loved characters to encourage healthy food choices.”

Some suggested regulators eventually may leave companies little choice but to encourage healthier choices. Joan “Jodie” Bernstein, a former member of the Federal Trade Commission who now advises the industry on advertising practices, was asked what will happen if self-regulation doesn’t work. “My personal opinion is yes, I think further steps of protection will have to be taken,” she said.


Todd Shields and Wendy Melillo, Mediaweek. July 24, 2006

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