I used to work as an advertising lawyer, first at a large New York City law firm and then for one of the world’s largest consumer products and food companies. My bread and butter for a long time was the vetting and analysis of advertising claims – often related to food products — in advertisements, on product packaging, and in all other forms of consumer marketing. Every client for whom I worked operated fully within the law, but I’ve seen the behind-the-scenes thinking that goes into this stuff and, as I result, I view corporate advertising with a particularly jaundiced eye.
So it was disheartening – but not at all surprising – when I reported to you a while back (“Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s Self-Regulation of Children’s Food Advertising“) how what seemed like a great idea on paper — major companies promising to devote 100% of their child-directed advertising to “better-for-you” foods — turned out to be pretty dismal in practice. As I told you then, the “better for you foods” included such stellar items as these:
And more recently, I passed on a New York Times story revealing how food companies use online media to circumvent parental control and reach even more kids with games, surveys and social media that are a form of stealth advertising for these same “better for you” foods.
So when an inter-agency (FTC, CDC, FDA and USDA) working group released yesterday yet more voluntary standards for the marketing of food to children, I wasn’t that excited. It’s my feeling (as I summed up in my entry for the Slate magazine childhood obesity Hive) that actual legislation, with real penalties for violation, is our only hope if we want to rein in marketers seeking to reach children with food advertising.
Marion Nestle has such a good recap of the history behind, and a summary of, these guidelines that I won’t reinvent the wheel here. The bottom line is that food marketed to children would now have to contain at least one of several food groups (such as fruits, vegetables, eggs, beans, fat-free or low-fat dairy, and the like) without also containing excessive levels of saturated fat, sugars, sodium or trans fats. The full proposal is here.
As the Center for Science in the Public Interest points out in praising the new guidelines, one key improvement is that companies would no longer be able to carefully craft their own definitions of “better for you foods” as they’ve been doing under the voluntary scheme already in place. But it remains to be seen what sorts of foods they can still shoehorn into these guidelines (e.g., Marion Nestle speculates that the sodium restriction was raised slightly from a prior draft so that more junk food can pass muster.) And it remains to be seen how many manufacturers agree to adopt these voluntary standards.
In other words, the proof is in the pudding – or in the Post Cupcake Pebbles.
[Ed. Correction: I had a placeholder title on this post that I failed to fix before publishing. I'd said "FTC Issues . . ." but in fact it was, as noted in the post, an interagency working group. I've corrected the headline now.]