No Feast for Food Marketers

The latest government report blasting the industry's ad tactics -- especially those aimed at kids -- is going to be mighty hard to ignore

By Pallavi Gogoi

Kraft (KFT ), Coca Cola (KO ), and PepsiCo (PEP ), watch out. "Current food and beverage marketing practices put kids' long-term health at risk," the National Institute of Medicine (IOM) charged on Dec. 6.

In the most damning government assessment yet from the National Academy of Sciences, health-science and nutritional-policy experts sharply criticized the marketing practices of food and beverage companies and called for a congressional crackdown if the industry fails to mend its ways. At issue: the need to shift advertising away from high-calorie, low-nutrient products and instead promote healthier fare.


  For years, health activists and academics have complained that, on packaging and in TV spots, food marketers rely on popular cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and Shrek to sell food loaded with calories(see BW Online, 10/26/04, "The Food Giants Go on a Diet").

The industry has either ignored or dismissed suggestions for a ban on advertising to young children who can't tell the difference between marketing and wanting to eat what their favorite cartoon characters are hawking, health experts have complained.

This latest report from scientists who shape government policy on biomedical science, health, and medicine provides powerful new ammunition. What makes the report especially hard to ignore is that it was chaired by J. Michael McGinnis, one of the most respected scholars on the subject of disease prevention.


  McGinnis has served as assistant surgeon general and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Health (Disease Prevention & Health Promotion) in the Carter, Reagan, Bush (senior), and Clinton Administrations. "Coming from a guy who has had so much experience in disease prevention, this report has gravitas," says Marion Nestle, a professor in the Nutrition, Food Studies & Public Health Dept. at New York University.

The push for a government crackdown alarmed the ad industry. "We were deeply disappointed by the IOM's call for congressional action," says Dan Jaffe, executive vice-president of the Association of National Advertisers, the industry's premier trade organization. "This is a radical and unconstitutional proposal that would have an impact far beyond food advertising." Jaffe was particularly alarmed by the IOM's request for Congress to regulate food company advertising to children if all else fails in two years.

The industry, however, hopes it won't come to legislation and has promised to work with the government. "Food and beverage companies are strongly committed to responsible advertising and marketing, especially when it comes to children," says Richard Martin, vice-president for communications at the Grocery Manufacturers' Assn., the trade group that represents food and beverage manufacturers.


  While the call for possible congressional intervention was the most controversial recommendation, most of the IOM's proposals have been in the works for years. For example, it called for the ad industry to revise and expand its self-policing guidelines to include marketing on the Internet and on computer-game software that serves as a venue for ads. The Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, which serves as the industry's self-regulatory arm, would carry out any such expansion.

Yet critics have long complained that CARU doesn't really do much policing. In March, CARU charged that Burger King misled kids with its advertising for a kids meal in ads entitled "Chomp chomp chomp & away," which featured a double cheeseburger entrée.

CARU said the ad was deceptive to children, making it seem that the cheeseburger was the only Kids Meal entrée available at Burger King when other options were available. But CARU then suggested that, in agreeing to change its ads in the future, Burger King was showing its commitment to children.


  Sometimes, advertisers skirt CARU's guidelines. Four times this year the panel has asked Kraft, America's largest food company, to stop various advertising campaigns on the grounds that they promoted fatty or calorie-laden foods to kids. In all the instances, Kraft agreed to comply, but the ads had run their courses already, critics pointed out.

In one campaign, Kraft simply protested the CARU complaint. "Clearly our disagreement shows that the self-regulation process is working, and, of course, we might not always agree with the outcome," says Mark Berlind, executive vice-president for corporate and government affairs at Kraft.

Berlind says Kraft, along with some other companies, is willing to submit its ads for CARU review before running them, as long as it can revise them to make them acceptable to CARU. By Pallavi Gogoi


  But many health and nutrition experts hope the IOM's slap at the food industry will serve as a launching point for stricter enforcement. Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at the Harvard Medical School who co-founded the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, wants stronger steps.

"While I support the [IOM's] recommendation that food companies stop using TV characters to market unhealthy food to children," says Linn, "it's disappointing that they stopped short of recommending the prohibition of junk-food marketing to children. Self-regulation has clearly failed."

Linn has a point. Sure, one glance at any food and beverage company's news releases shows that it's now mounting anti-obesity campaigns, promoting exercise, new low-fat food products, and curbing high-fat food ads to children. But none of the companies cooperated in the study, the IOM say."On the matter of characterizing commercial marketing practices and trends, the [study's panelists] faced several notable challenges. Substantial proprietary market research data were either not publicly accessible, or available only for purchase at considerable cost and with prohibitive constraints on public use of the data," the report says.


  Yes, Pepsico advertises its "Smart Spot" choices, which include bottled water and Baked Lays chips. And General Mills highlights its low-fat yogurts -- such as "Gogurts" -- which already enjoy popularity with kids. But the IOM report concludes that plenty of new products that are high in calories, sugars, salt, and fat have been introduced and marketed to children.

Kraft has agreed not to advertise its Oreos and Lunchables snacks -- well-liked among children from ages 6 to 11 -- on TV or in print anymore. But about half of all commercials during children's TV programming consist of branded foods and beverages that are high-fat, high-sugar, and low in essential nutrients. Primary among the offenders are candies, sweetened cereals, carbonated soft drinks and other sweetened beverages, and fast food, according to the report.

Additionally, the report cites research that shows companies use ads and other marketing techniques that associate these specific foods with fun and pleasurable experiences. Small wonder 9 million children in the U.S. -- some 16% -- are obese. And the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes among children and youth, previously known as adult-onset diabetes, has more than doubled in the past decade, government health experts say.


  What to do? The IOM says the government should launch its own public-service campaign targeted at parents and caregivers to promote healthy diets in children. "If America's children and youth are to develop eating habits that help them avoid early onset of diet-related chronic diseases, they have to reduce their intake of high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks, fast foods, and sweetened drinks, which make up a high proportion of the products marketed to kids," says McGinnis, the committee chairman and senior scholar at the IOM(see BW Online, 11/9/05, "Fat Times for Fast Food").

Some of the IOM's recommendations are already being implemented, such as one that asks restaurant chains to expand meal options for children and provide prominently visible calorie-content and key nutrition information on menus and packaging.

McDonald's (MCD ) now provides nutritional information in its Happy Meals and recently announced that it will extend the practice to its entire menu. "Even our menu choices have expanded and are in sync with the report's recommendations," says Dr. Cathy Kapica, McDonald's nutrition director.

The fast-food chain also includes sliced apples -- as an alternative to fries -- in its kids meals and salads for adults. One result: McDonald's is now the biggest purchaser of apples, tomatoes, and lettuce in the country. It also changed the packaging on its children's milk cartons to attractive little plastic jugs, which have doubled its milk sales.


  The IOM report asks food companies to take a leadership role in making sure that only healthful diets are advertised to children. It also asks media outlets to ensure that licensed characters are used for the promotion of only foods and beverages that support healthful diets for children and youth.

Already Nickelodeon (VIA ) has SpongeBob and Dora selling spinach and carrots. But SpongeBob still also hawks Kellogg's Pop Tarts (K ) and Kraft's Macaroni and Cheese on the children's cable station(see BW Online, 7/25/05, "SpongeBob SquareMeal?").

If the industry doesn't step up cooperation, it faces heightened congressional scrutiny. "This report proves that the onslaught of junk-food marketing is endangering the health of our children," declares Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who requested the study. "We would like to think that Spongebob Squarepants, Shrek, and the Disney Princesses are likable, kid-friendly characters, but they're being used to manipulate vulnerable children to make unhealthy choices. This must stop."

If the food and beverage industries are smart, they'll heed the IOM report and start truly watching how they market fatty and sugary foods to children. Gogoi is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.