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Recently, I wrote a diary on a revealing report by the Federal Trade Commission about how food companies are targeting kids with all kinds of junk food marketing, to the tune of $1.6 billion annually. I praised the FTC for writing such a damning indictment of how the likes of McDonald's and Kraft Foods take advantage of children's vulnerabilities, often going behind parents' backs, for example, in schools. But the detailed description of how kids are marketed to is where my praise for the agency ends.

Like many other government reports, it's like one staff person (among the rank and file) wrote the description of the problem, while another (more politically accountable) wrote the recommendations. Trouble is the two don't go together. What’s the point of having a government agency conduct a damning investigation that results in no meaningful recommendations for regulatory action?

The latter part of the FTC report is focused on the food industry's "progress" in improving their marketing practices. The national debate regarding food marketing to children has been going on for several years, and over that time, the major corporations have been making lots of promises to do better. But as I explained in my book, we can no more trust the promises that industry made back in 2005 then we can their current "pledges."

Yes, pledges is how the food industry describes its latest round of voluntary, self-regulatory guidelines for marketing to children. When I first heard that word from a colleague, I thought he was kidding, since a pledge sounds like something a boy scout would make, not a multinational corporation. And yet, these pledges are what our federal government is holding up as the model for regulation, what is essentially passing for law.

McDonald's pledge is on the company's "corporate responsibility blog" and includes this promise:

McDonald's will limit the use of third-party licensed characters in paid advertising primarily directed to children under 12 to the promotion of healthy dietary choices. The company will also limit its use of third-party licensed characters on company owned websites to the promotion of healthy dietary choices or healthy lifestyle messages.

Of course, McDonald's most successful kid-friendly marketing device is the Happy Meal, which is often used as a vehicle to promote the latest blockbuster Hollywood movie, aka "third party licensed characters." Now while this promise sounds good on its face, loopholes abound. First of all, the word "primarily" is not defined, but could logically mean just more than half. So any marketing where 50 percent of the target audience happens to include those over age 12, the rule need not apply. Next is the clever inclusion of the word "paid" to describe advertising. As the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood pointed out regarding the FTC reported figures on brand licensing:

Companies report $46 million for character or cross-promotional brand licensing fees. However, most cross-promotional arrangements do not require a fee. In 2006, there were 81 media properties used by the target companies to promote their brands. These cross-promotions turn entire programs and movies into advertisements for the foods they promote, yet they are not counted as expenditures.

So we really have no way of knowing what McDonald's counts as "paid."

But most important is the vagueness of "healthy dietary choices," a catchphrase that the food industry loves to use to make the companies sound caring. Guess who gets to decide what constitutes a healthy dietary choice? FDA? No, rather it’s up to the trusted McDieticians at corporate headquarters. Enter Apple Dippers, the kid-friendly menu item that has made McDonald's the nation's largest purchaser of apples, a frightening thought, if you've read Fast Food Nation.

Whether or not it's better for kids to eat apples than French fries is really beside the point. Instead, the question is, do we really want Star Wars toys being marketed to kids by Ronald McDonald no matter what food comes with the "free" toys inside a Happy Meal? The game plan of any company targeting kids is not guided by the nutritional content of the food, but rather by the life-long brand loyalty that marketers seek to foment in little consumers, the younger the better.

And despite the incredible marketing details that the FTC report uncovered, this crucial point seems to be lost on the agency. Let's look more closely at some of FTC's key recommendations, which are predicated on the assumption that voluntary, self-regulation is the only option available: (The CBBB is the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the body coordinating the pledges.)

The CBBB and participating companies should enhance the Initiative in the following ways: Work toward standardizing the nutrition criteria for "healthy dietary choices" that may be marketed to children, such as by product category (e.g., for beverages, cereals, snack foods, soups, canned pastas, and frozen entrees).

Right now, each company has its own nutrition criteria for what products it decides are acceptable to market to children. So the FTC is saying, the agency coordinating the pledges should work with these 14 global conglomerates to get them all to agree on standard nutrition guidelines. Good luck with that.

Indeed, almost all of the FTC's recommendations are predicated on the notion that the food industry just needs to market "healthy" food to kids. Here are more recommendations along these lines:

Companies should continue and increase efforts to improve the nutritional profiles of their products – especially those marketed to children and adolescents – through product innovation and reformulation. Companies should improve upon the nutritional criteria adopted for "better for you" products as they find ways to lower sugar, fat, sodium, etc., without sacrificing taste and appeal.

And again, in relation to product formulas and packaging:

Companies should continue and expand efforts to package more nutritious products in ways that are more appealing to children. Companies should continue efforts to use product packaging to help consumers control portion sizes and calories, by offering smaller portions and single-serving packages.

And again, in relation to school foods:

Companies should continue efforts to improve the nutritional profile of foods and beverages sold in schools. Companies should cease all in-school promotion of products that do not meet meaningful nutrition-based standards.

And again, in recommending that media companies such as Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel also get on board the self-regulation bandwagon:

More media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their characters to healthier foods and beverages that are marketed to children, so that cross-promotions with popular children’s movies and television characters will favor the more, rather than the less, nutritious foods and drinks. Media companies should consider adopting uniform, objective standards that limit advertising placements on programs "directed to children" to healthier food and beverage products.

There are several problems with this approach. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, how is the Council of Better Business Bureaus going to get these 14 companies to play nice together: Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Hershey, Kraft Foods, Mars, Unilever, Burger King, Cadbury Adams, General Mills, Kellogg, McDonald’s, PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods, and Nestle, not to mention the likes of Nickelodeon and Disney.

Next, these companies aren't exactly in the healthy foods business. How does FTC, for example, expect Mars and Cadbury to come up with anything nutritionally acceptable? Broccoli-infused chocolate and carrot bubble gum perhaps? The business model of every one of these mega-corporations is to take raw ingredients from nature (where they actually contained nutrition at one time) and grind them to a pulp in factories, removing anything resembling a vitamin, adding in chemicals you never heard of, boxing it all up in cartoon packaging. That's not going to change just because FTC is asking these companies to please care about the harm they might be causing to children’s health.

Most importantly, the FTC should be calling on the food industry to stop marketing to children, period. If a child under the age of 8 does not have the cognitive capacity to understand that she is being targeted commercially, then how can any marketing to young children be ethical? Even older kids, while they can understand "persuasive intent," are still unable to resist the power of marketing. It's entirely possible that the FTC recommendations, if followed, could result in more, not less food marketing to kids. The agency is essentially encouraging the nation's most aggressive food marketers to keep it up, as long as it's for the "right" foods, however that gets defined.

Kids should not be taught to eat carrots and oranges because SpongeBob or even Elmo says so. Rather, they should eat when they are hungry, just as adults should. We cannot depend on marketers to make kids eat right. If the food industry just stopped targeting kids with billions of dollars worth of sophisticated unhealthy food messages, parents’ jobs would get a whole lot easier.

Moreover, the FTC's reliance on voluntary, self-regulation is contrary to actions being recommended on the global level. Just last week, the International Obesity Taskforce released the published version of "the Sydney Principles," (named after a 2006 conference in Australia). These principles were developed thanks to the recognition by global health experts that:

This marketing will inevitably undermine the efforts of parents and governments to promote healthy eating and runs contrary to the objectives of the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health which has been endorsed by 192 countries. To support national and transnational efforts to progress this issue, the International Obesity Taskforce (IOTF) developed a set of principles to guide action on changing marketing practices to children.

Notable is the the broader definition of "child" than either that of the FTC or the U.S. food industry:

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a 'child' as under the age of 18 years but recognises that, for different situations, definitions may use a younger age. All children are affected by both the obesity epidemic and commercial marketing, however, a stepped approach may be needed to account for the greater vulnerabilities of younger children.

Here are the principles in their entirety:

Actions to reduce commercial promotions to children should:

  1. SUPPORT THE RIGHTS OF CHILDREN.

Regulations need to align with and support the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Rome Declaration on World Food Security which endorse the rights of children to adequate, safe and nutritious food.

  1. AFFORD SUBSTANTIAL PROTECTION TO CHILDREN.

Children are particularly vulnerable to commercial exploitation, and regulations need to be sufficiently powerful to provide them with a high level of protection. Child protection is the responsibility of every section of society - parents, governments, civil society, and the private sector.

  1. BE STATUTORY IN NATURE.

Only legally-enforceable regulations have sufficient authority to ensure a high level of protection for children from targeted marketing and the negative impact that this has on their diets. Industry self-regulation is not designed to achieve this goal.

  1. TAKE A WIDE DEFINITION OF COMMERCIAL PROMOTIONS.

Regulations need to encompass all types of commercial targeting of children (e.g. television advertising, print, sponsorships, competitions, loyalty schemes, product placements, relationship marketing, Internet) and be sufficiently flexible to include new marketing methods as they develop.

  1. GUARANTEE COMMERCIAL-FREE CHILDHOOD SETTINGS.

Regulations need to ensure that childhood settings such as schools, child care, and early childhood education facilities are free from commercial promotions that specifically target children.

  1. INCLUDE CROSS BORDER MEDIA.

International agreements need to regulate cross-border media such as Internet, satellite and cable television, and free-to-air television broadcast from neighbouring countries.

  1. BE EVALUATED, MONITORED AND ENFORCED.

The regulations need to be evaluated to ensure the expected effects are achieved, independently monitored to ensure compliance, and fully enforced.

Many of these concepts go further than what the FTC report recommended, but most distinguishable is number 3:

Only legally-enforceable regulations have sufficient authority to ensure a high level of protection for children from targeted marketing and the negative impact that this has on their diets. Industry self-regulation is not designed to achieve this goal. (emphasis added)

As long as the FTC continues to allow the food industry to police itself, our children's health will remain in jeopardy. Only through legally enforceable statutes and regulations will corporations be forced to change their practices. And yes, it's also up to parents to model good behavior, set limits, and just say no. But to quote from the global taskforce: "Child protection is the responsibility of every section of society - parents, governments, civil society, and the private sector."

Originally posted to Michele Simon on Mon Aug 18, 2008 at 07:08 AM PDT.

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