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Ads Aimed at Children Get Tighter Scrutiny

The advertising industry yesterday revised 32-year-old guidelines for advertising directed at children younger than 12 and separately launched a voluntary effort with 10 food and beverage companies to devote at least half their advertising to promoting more healthful dietary or lifestyle choices to children.

During the three decades since the guidelines were first drafted, advertising to children has come under increasing scrutiny as spending on it has increased to $15 billion a year and rates of childhood obesity and related ailments have doubled.

The revisions announced yesterday, coupled with the voluntary advertising initiative, won praise among some public health officials but were denounced as ineffective by consumer advocates and critics of children's marketing.

The guidelines are used by the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), which was created by three advertising industry trade groups in 1974 to ensure that television commercials, magazine ads and later Web sites aimed at children younger than 12 are truthful, accurate and appropriate.

Critics have long complained that CARU, which has a staff of eight and a budget of more than $1 million, had guidelines that were too narrow and out-of-date and that it lacked enforcement powers needed to oversee the extensive advertising directed at children every year.

The changes announced yesterday sought to address some of those criticisms. The new guidelines require companies to distinguish between advertising and programming content, require mealtime foods to be shown in the context of a balanced meal instead of a balanced diet, and require companies to identify when an online interactive game contains advertising. The changes also broaden CARU's authority to act against "unfair" marketing practices that, for example, promote 900 numbers to children.

As a self-regulatory body, CARU recommends changes to advertisements and, if ignored, can sometimes refer the matter to the Federal Trade Commission. In the past two years, CARU has referred five cases to the FTC, said C. Lee Peeler, the executive vice president for advertising self-regulation for CARU's parent, the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The FTC acted on at least one of those referrals in 2004 by imposing $400,000 in penalties on UMG Recordings Inc. for collecting personal information on Lilromeo.com from children younger than 13 without parental consent.

Separately, 10 companies promised CARU they would devote at least half their television, radio, print, and Internet advertising for children younger than 12 to promoting products that meet certain government definitions of healthy, or to encouraging children to engage in physical activity or good eating habits.

Participating companies also promise to set public goals for reducing their use of third-party licensed characters such as Shrek or SpongeBob SquarePants, unless the characters are used to promote healthy products or lifestyles. They agree not to pay for product placement in any medium directed at children under age 12, and to incorporate healthy products or messages in interactive games. Finally, they agree not to advertise their products in elementary schools.

The companies that have signed up are Cadbury Schweppes USA, Campbell Soup Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Unilever, McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo.., Hershey Co., General Mills Inc., and Kellogg Co. The 10 companies account for two-thirds of television food and beverage advertising spending directed at children.

Representatives for the companies declined to say yesterday how the guidelines would affect existing advertising or Web sites. They have six to nine months to turn in their goals. CARU plans to hire outside consultants to help monitor whether the firms live up to their pledges.

Joan Z. Bernstein, a former top Federal Trade Commission official who headed up the review of the guidelines, called the revisions and the voluntary effort by advertisers "groundbreaking," saying they would lead to "better and more frequent messaging" to children about the importance of healthy eating and regular physical activity.

"This is a move in the right direction. . . . it would be a pretty substantial change," said J. Michael McGinnis, who served as chair of the Institute of Medicine's Children's Food Marketing Committee, which last year recommended no licensed characters be used for marketing of unhealthful products and that the preponderance of advertising be focused on healthful ones.

Critics of children's marketing questioned whether the revised guidelines and the voluntary marketing effort require firms to make meaningful changes.

Spokesmen for several of the participating companies said they already refrain from advertising in elementary schools and paying for product placement on children's shows.

The companies have agreed to promote foods defined by the Food and Drug Administration as healthy, which doesn't address sugar, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

"All sugary breakfast cereals get a free ride," Jacobson said.

Frances Seligman, a nutritionist who served as a CARU adviser, countered that few food products meet that definition. "Let's just say you can't get a jelly bean in there," she said.

Others criticized CARU for not addressing nontraditional marketing, such as McDonald's use of Ronald McDonald in schools to promote physical activity.

"I don't see any substantial changes," said Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and author of "Consuming Kids." She said companies "will continue to be able to market junk food to children -- and their marketing is going to be even more confusing for children because it will be linked to "healthy lifestyle" messages."

 

Annys Shin, Washington Post. November 15, 2006

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