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There'’s a Better Way for the FTC to Regulate Food Marketing to Kids

Hank Cardello

In a hapless attempt to deal with the increasingly high profile problem of childhood obesity, the FTC has subpoenaed 48 food companies asking them to divulge their practices on advertising to children. It’s a move that makes for great headlines, but the agency is wasting its time.

For one thing, the FTC isn’t likely to use the information they glean to propose any actual regulations. “We are not proposing any regulation,“ said Carol Jennings, spokeswoman for the FTC’s Division of Advertising Practices. “We are supportive of industry voluntary efforts to limit their marketing to kids and this will see whether more is needed.”

So if there’s not going to be regulation, what then is the point of subpoenas, other than to keep corporate lawyers busy? Certainly the food industry could stand to improve its self-monitoring of the way it markets to children in a March 2010 report, the Center for Science in the Public Interest gave 95 of the 128 companies they evaluated a grade of F. No one got an A.

But despite their good intentions, both Washington and food advocate organizations are going about this the wrong way. Their insistence on one-size-fits-all restrictions is certain to meet with industry resistance and will only perpetuate the tug of war over how best to address the fact that over 1/6th of America’s children and adolescents are obese.

America’s collective girth would be better served by adopting a radical new point of view. Rather than cast the food industry’s marketing prowess as a bad thing, let’s put that $2 billion spent annually on advertising to children to good use.

If marketers want to advertise to kids, let’s make sure that every ad contains a message about nutrition or portion control, something like “Eat responsibly” or “Cut your calories”. This would be much more effective than arguing over what percentage of saturated fats or sugars is acceptable. Too few consumers walk the talk about avoiding specific ingredients anyway.

Adopting this new approach would help educate kids about better eating habits, while allowing corporations to achieve their necessary profit goals. And since more people are demanding healthier fare for themselves and their families, companies might also see improved customer loyalty as a reward for taking a stand.

There are lessons in what beer companies did with drunk driving. Seeking to avoid regulations that would ban alcohol promotion activities or limit advertising to only black and white, beer marketers adopted an aggressive stance against drinking and driving.Anheuser-Busch (BUD) takes a straightforward position on drunk driving: they flat out oppose it. Their policy clearly states: “We have developed and implemented programs to fight drunk driving by encouraging the use of designated drivers or alternate transportation, and to educate young people about the dangers of drunk driving.”

The bottom line is that they got ahead of the problem by doing the right thing, which helped them avoid draconian legislation that would have derailed growth. Food and beverage marketers have the same opportunity today.

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