Does This Look Like Health Food?

By way of self-regulation, marketers manage to fight back fed clampdown on kid food ads—for now

Perhaps nothing illustrates the debate over marketing food to kids better than the current ad campaign for the revamped, healthier Happy Meal from McDonald’s.

An animated TV spot targeting children 8 to 11 from Leo Burnett hits all the hot spots of the obesity uproar. In the ad, a kid named Ferris teaches his pet goat to eat a better diet of fruit and dairy, aided by a catchy rhyme reminiscent of Mother Goose. There’s no mention of burgers or the much smaller portion of fries in the new Happy Meal, which features apple slices and fat-free chocolate milk.

“For the first time, 100 percent of our national marketing efforts to kids [under 12] will include nutrition or active lifestyle messages,” says Neil Golden, chief marketing officer of McDonald’s USA.

The national promotion is the first kids’ campaign from the chain since it committed to updated marketing guidelines the food industry introduced last summer. It is a key example of how the food and beverage industry aims via self-regulation to head off the government’s push for restrictions on food marketing to kids—a key element of the Obama administration’s efforts to combat obesity, which is a pet project of the First Lady.

McDonald’s is one of 16 companies to adopt uniform nutrition guidelines as part of the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (Cfbai), collectively representing 80 percent of kids’ advertising. Since the group was founded six years ago, participating companies have agreed not to advertise foods that do not meet its nutrition criteria to children under 12.

Between now and the end of 2013, other companies targeting children have said they will introduce products and marketing campaigns adhering to the guidelines. Campbell’s adopted the Cfbai’s grain criteria for its new Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Bread. Kraft Foods introduced Lunchables with Fruit. Beginning this month, Nestlé will no longer advertise its Juicy Juice Sparkling Fruit Juice Beverage to children. Three companies—Coca-Cola, Mars and Hershey—do not advertise, period, to kids under 12.

“There is a lot of good development; it’s all about steady improvements,” says Elaine Kolish, vp and director of the Cfbai.

The timing of the Cfbai’s new nutrition standards is telling, adopted just as the government’s Interagency Working Group of the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies circulated a set of voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children that the advertising industry found onerous and overreaching.

But where the ad industry points to improvement, public health figures charge it’s not enough. They remain skeptical of the industry’s self-regulation, especially after a bitter fight in Washington last year that pitted food and nutrition advocates against a large and well-funded food lobby that ultimately convinced regulators to soften guidelines. All but killing the feds’ voluntary guidelines, Congress inserted language in a budget bill that prevented federal agencies from moving forward in the absence of an industry-cost-benefit analysis.

“It’s amazing that the industry lobbied so heavily against voluntary suggestions. It calls into question their commitment to address food marketing in a responsible way,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest and head of the Food Marketing Workgroup, a coalition of 120 groups calling for national legislation to regulate food marketing to children. “What companies say they’re doing is so much better than what they’re actually doing. They need to do better than what they proposed last summer. It’s the same old sugary cereals, white flour and other junk.”

Wootan says only two-thirds of companies her organization tracks have some kind of children’s marketing policy. Of restaurant and entertainment companies, fewer than one-quarter do.

“The Cfbai is Exhibit 1 of how the industry has moved forward to enhance the guidelines to respond to concerns—that’s what self-regulation is about,” counters Lee Peeler, president and CEO of the National Advertising Review Council, which monitors virtually all children’s TV and advertising to ensure compliance. “There are always going to be folks criticizing, so the trick is to make sure [kids’ advertising] is being done responsibly.”

For the time being, the government’s efforts have been pushed aside, and the industry’s self-regulation is taking hold. “Food marketing to kids is a priority, and childhood obesity is a priority. But that particular initiative, it’s probably time to move on,” Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, one of the agencies behind the IWG’s voluntary guidelines, told a House Appropriations Committee this month.

Pressure from outside groups continues even as the industry continues to push forward with self-regulation.

“Moving on should not mean abandoning any regulation of food marketing,” says Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University who specializes in children’s policy issues. “The uniform guidelines are a step in the right direction, but it would not have happened without the threat of government regulation. It won’t work without some government framework.”

The debate is bound to heat up even more this summer when the FTC is expected to release an update to a 2006 report on marketing to kids. Says Mary Engle, the associate director of advertising practices for the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection: “We’ll be able to see the extent self-regulation is working and see if there have been real shifts in spending and marketing."

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