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Limiting Ads of Junk Food to Children

Trix are no longer for kids — at least not on children’s television shows. But Cocoa Puffs are another matter.

Trying to persuade critics the industry does not need government regulation, 11 big food companies, including McDonald’s, Campbell Soup and PepsiCo, have agreed to stop advertising to children under 12 products that do not meet certain nutritional standards. Some of the companies, like Coca-Cola, have already withdrawn all such commercials or are in the process of doing so. Others, like General Mills, said they would withdraw them over the next year or so, while a handful agreed to expand their self-imposed bans to radio, print and Internet advertising.

Still, the agreements will probably amount to a ripple rather than a sea change in terms of what foods children see pitched on their favorite television shows and Web sites. For example, while General Mills will no longer be advertising Trix to the 12-and-under crowd, it will continue to peddle Cocoa Puffs, which have one less gram of sugar per serving. And it will be able to continue advertising Trix on television shows and other media that are considered to cater to “families” rather than just children.

That qualifier amounts to a major loophole, given the media-watching habits of children. An episode of Nickelodon’s “SpongeBob SquarePants,” for instance, is viewed by an average audience of 876,000 children age 6 to 11, according to Nielsen Media Research, and falls in the category of shows that are off-limits to ads for junk food. But “American Idol” from Fox, which qualifies as a family show, attracts 2.1 million children in the age group.

The companies have also agreed for the first time to open their marketing plans to the Council of Better Business Bureaus and its Children’s Advertising Review Unit, which will review them and report publicly on the findings. This scrutiny and the pledges to self-regulate, which will be announced at a Federal Trade Commission event today, are an attempt to show corporate responsiveness to growing concerns about childhood obesity.

“We are hopeful that people will look at this and say that the community has done a substantial, enormous amount of work,” said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers.

Advertisers spend some $900 million annually on television tailored to children under 12, according to industry estimates. Together, the companies involved represent two-thirds of the total children’s advertising market, according to the Better Business Bureau. Cadbury Adams, Coca-Cola, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars and Unilever are the other participating companies.

The nutritional parameters vary by company, but are all based on the 2005 United States Dietary Guidelines developed by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services.

A pat on the back from critics is unlikely. The pledges, which were made under the threat of regulatory intervention and, in some cases, the threat of lawsuits, fall short of the demands from child advocacy groups. Most critics have been pushing for uniform guidelines for marketers to follow and for oversight from a body with the authority to enforce them.

“This is great public relations for the companies, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough,” said Susan Linn, co-founder of the Boston-based group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “It is going to be impossible to monitor if the companies are actually doing what they say.”

To some degree, the pledges appeared to be an effort by the food companies to get out in front of a forthcoming government study on childhood obesity. Senators Sam Brownback and Tom Harkin announced July 5 that they would postpone a report from a task force they formed with the Federal Communications Commission in lieu of the companies’ plans to announce concessions today. At the time, Senator Brownback said, “The extension will allow for a more thorough examination of new initiatives.”

The financial impact of the pledges on television networks like Nickelodeon, ABC Family and Cartoon Network will depend on how well the food companies can tweak their products. Many of the companies are not automatically withdrawing their products from the airwaves; rather, they are trying to reformulate the foods to meet nutritional guidelines. If they cannot do so to their satisfaction, they say they will replace ads for so-called junk foods with spots for healthier alternatives.

Cadbury Adams, the maker of Bubblicious chewing gum, says it will either withdraw advertisements of the brand from certain media or will direct half of its current Bubblicious budget to the promotion of healthier eating habits. The company declined to specify how much it spends promoting Bubblicious each year, but said that a healthier habit might be choosing a smaller portion of gum.

MTV Networks, which owns Nickelodeon and other channels popular with younger viewers, expects the agreements to have minimal impact on its bottom line. “Many products sold by these companies haven’t been on our air for years,” said Jim Perry, executive vice president for ad sales at Nickelodeon and MTV Networks Kids and Family Group. Marva Smalls, executive vice president for Nickelodeon public affairs, added, “We have been on the road pressing for this.”

Similarly, some of the participating companies said that their ad budgets would not be altered in any meaningful way; PepsiCo, which makes Pepsi Cola and Frito-Lay snack foods, said that its children’s advertising budget represents only 1 percent of its overall ad budget. Starting Jan. 1, PepsiCo will advertise to children only products that meet the criteria set out in its 2004 “Smart Spot” nutritional program.

Under PepsiCo’s pledge, only two products can be marketed to children under 12, according to Lynn Markley, vice president for health and wellness. They are Baked Cheetos, which have 50 percent less fat than regular Cheetos, and Gatorade. In the case of Gatorade, the company says the brand will sponsor ads that give tips to children on participating in sports. The product itself will not be pictured.

PepsiCo’s commitment will also translate to a diminished role for Cap’n Crunch, the familiar mascot of the cereal made by the company’s Quaker Oats division. Ms. Markley said that the Cap’n will remain on cereal boxes but that as of Jan. 1, 2008, he will not appear in any television, print, Internet or other advertising to children under 12. This will mean an end to his interactive arcade-style game for children at www.capncrunch.com.

Other companies agreed in their pledges to limit their use of licensed characters like SpongeBob or Scooby-Doo.

Deborah Platt Majoras, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, called the various pledges “a significant step” and urged more food makers to join the effort. “While changes in food marketing alone will not solve the nation’s childhood obesity problem, these actions will help make a healthy choice the easy choice,” she said in a statement.

Efforts to curtail junk food advertisements started escalating about three years ago, as evidence of the problem of child obesity started mounting. Food companies, concluding that the issue would not go away and fearing the kind of government scrutiny given to tobacco companies, started trying to police themselves.

Kraft was an early leader. In January 2005, the company said it would stop advertising products like Oreos, Chips Ahoy and most Oscar Mayer Lunchables on programs aimed at children ages 6 to 11. Other companies followed, including Kellogg, which said last month that it would stop marketing foods that have more than 12 grams of sugar per serving to children. These include such childhood favorites as Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and Pop-Tarts.

General Mills said it looked to Kellogg to establish its own nutritional standards. “We saw that public interest groups praised that level, and we decided to line up together on that,” said Christina L. Shea, senior vice president for external relations.

Ms. Shea said that some brands, like Cocoa Puffs, already complied with the standard of 12 grams of sugar or less per serving. Trix cereal, however, has 13 grams. Ms. Shea said the company would reformulate the cereal no later than the end of 2008, or not advertise the brand to children after that point.


Brooks Barnes, The New York Times. July 18, 2007

Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.