A few weeks ago, the government finally stepped in to rectify this advertising imbalance. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) published new guidelines on food marketing to children that are designed to reign in the ever-expanding universe of advertisements, advertisement-focused games, text messages, Facebook pages…the list goes on and on.
THE DETAILS: Though the new guidelines are voluntary, it's likely that food companies are going to comply. "If companies don't agree to do this voluntarily after they've had some time to incorporate the changes, there will probably be more support for the government to step in and make them mandatory," says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which studies food marketing.
The FTC is proposing fairly basic principles. The commission's guidelines—which give companies five to 10 years to comply—are that any foods marketed to children between the ages of 2 and 17 "make a meaningful contribution to a healthful diet" and "contain limited amounts of nutrients that have a negative impact on health or weight (saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium)." In order to meet the first criteria, foods that are marketed to this particular age group have to contain food from at least one of the following categories: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk products, fish, extra lean meat or poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans. And they have to meet certain nutritional criteria: less than 15 percent calories from saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, no more than 13 grams of added sugars, and no more than 210 milligrams of sodium per serving.
The guidelines also cover virtually every venue that companies have been come to dominate—20 categories of advertising, marketing, and promotional activities that include not just TV and print advertising, but also social media, online games that serve as advertisements, text messages, product placement in movies and video games, and a variety of other electronic marketing gimmicks that have cropped up lately.
WHAT IT MEANS: The unusually long time frame the companies have been given has drawn the most ire from the public health community. And Harris says that a more ideal time frame would have been something like three years, rather than five. "It's not like this is a new concept to food marketers," she says. "They've heard the concerns about the products they're marketing to children, and they've said that they're improving them."
Aside from that, however, she's encouraged by what the FTC is doing. "The guidelines are really strong and a great step in the right direction," she says. "They really address the major issues that current self-regulation doesn't." She's referring to the industry's current food marketing initiative, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which was launched in 2005 and currently has 17 companies (among them, General Mills, McDonald's, and Coca Cola) pledging to improve food marketing for "better for you" foods. "These companies have developed their own advertising criteria," she says, "and most of them are basically just tweaking their current product lines to make them slightly lower in fat or lower in sugar." One study from the University of Arizona found that 68.5 percent of marketing to children from these companies was for their least nutritious products. The FTC guidelines, she says, spell out specific nutritional criteria that need to be met so companies can't hide behind vague "better for you" descriptions.
She's also encouraged by the comprehensive nature of media outlets covered by the guidelines. Although television still dominates in food advertising, the Internet and other forms of electronic media are increasingly influential, particularly among preteens and teenagers. In a recent report on fast food advertising from the Rudd Center, the researchers found that McDonald's now has 13 different websites for children and teenagers. Eight of the 12 fast-food chains analyzed had created mobile phone apps accessible by teenagers, and nearly all fast-food chains have pages on Facebook and other social media sites. "The [FTC] restrictions on social media are going to be huge," she says. "It's being used to really push products to people who have expressed an interest in them, so there's lots of couponing, special offers, deals, really designed to incentivize people to purchase a product right away." In that way, she says, the ads are more powerful than a simple 30-second TV commercial. "The other part of it is the viral features," she says. "The fact that kids can let their friends know that they like Coke and that they like Burger King really taps into that age group's need for peer acceptance and need for fitting in. That's the one thing we find especially disturbing about social media."
To protect your kids from this onslaught of food marketing, try this:
• Make your TV time non-commercial. No children should be watching more than two hours of television a day, but when they are watching TV, stick with PBS (or other forms of non-commercial programming) and videos. "There was one great study that showed that the relationship between TV viewing and obesity only occurs when the TV viewing is commercial TV," Harris says. "It supports the claims that the TV commercials are leading to obesity." Rent videos or DVDs from the library, and if there's a particular TV series your children like, rent it by the season (commercial free) through Netflix.
• Keep children's bedrooms screen free. It's much more difficult to monitor what your children are doing online—and any advertisements they're getting sucked into—when both they and their computers are locked up in the bedrooms, Harris says. Same goes for television. "Also, kids who have electronic media in the bedroom are more likely to be overweight," she adds. "There are lots of negatives."
• Monitor food marketing in your schools and community. It's hard to convince your children that soda is bad when there's a soda machine at school. "Anything sold in schools is, in a way, an endorsement of that product," Harris says. "If it's sold at schools, kids don't think it's that bad." Likewise, it can be hard to argue that a local fast-food joint is unhealthy if that same fast-food joint is sponsoring your kids' soccer team. Keep an eye out for these sorts of unexpected marketing gimmicks, Harris adds. Talk to other parents, or join your school's PTA so you can keep the influence of food marketers to a minimum.