Self-Regulation of Kids’ Food Advertising: A Doomed Effort


In prior posts I’ve told you about the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary effort by the leading food and beverage companies to rein in their marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to kids.

In the past, this initiative came up short because each participating company could set its own (often laughable) standards for what constitutes a “better-for-you” food or beverage that could be advertised to kids (see, e.g., “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry Self-Regulation of Children’s Food Advertising.)

But in a calculated move to ward off possible (voluntary) federal guidelines, the CFBAI in 2014 instituted what it called “meaningful, science-based” nutrition criteria to apply across the board to all of its participating companies.  That certainly sounded like good news on its face. But at the time of the announcement, the New York Times rightly noted that the new standard wouldn’t “require food makers to change much — two-thirds of the products the companies now advertise already meet them. And the levels fall far short of nutritional standards proposed by regulators.”

Here’s CFBAI’s 2015 product list and here are a few photos to show you how weak the nutritional standards remain today:

So it was not surprising to read a new report last week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine which found that “the industry has done everything it promised, in technical terms. Yet, despite consistent compliance, self-regulation has been ineffective in shifting the landscape of food marketing to children away from an overwhelming emphasis on obesogenic products.”

The study’s researchers used the “Go, Slow, Whoa” categories established by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the products marketed to children throughout 2013, and found that “four of every five food ads (80.5%) aired during children’s programming still promoted nutritionally deficient products, or so-called Whoa foods, which pose health risks when consumed in abundance.”  Put another way, the researchers concluded that “the nutritional standards employed by companies participating in the CFBAI do not necessarily reflect high benchmarks.”


The CFBAI responded to the study the only way it really could: by lashing out at the Go, Slow, Whoa standards, which the organization asserted are “simplistic,” “outdated” and ready to be retired.

Perhaps at this point, it might be worth refreshing everyone’s memory about the Go, Slow, Whoa standards.  Do you see anything objectionable, controversial or outdated about this dietary advice?

go slow whoa

Yeah, me neither.

In a circular twist, the CFBAI also attacked the Go, Slow, Whoa standards by saying they’re at odds with foods allowed in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP).  In other words, because the food industry has managed to shoehorn nutritionally questionable products into the school food guidelines, those foods are per se healthy and should be aggressively marketed to kids, even kids who are too young to understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

To address that shaky proposition, a few pictures of NSLP- and SBP-approved foods (made by CFBAI members) say it all:

The bottom line is that the processed food industry is in the business of creating highly processed foods.  That’s its entire raison d’être. And highly processed foods are the very foods children (as well as the rest of us) should avoid eating, at least most of the time, to maintain optimal health and to reduce the risk of obesity.

So asking this industry to set its own nutritional standards for a children’s advertising ban is a doomed effort.  Yes, industry has made strides by curbing the advertising of candy, soda and other worst-of-the-worst foods, but expecting it to go much further — without governmental regulation — is a pipe dream.

Or, put another way, we could condense the entire American Journal of Preventative Medicine study down to these ten words buried within it:

. . . profit motives are at cross-purposes with concerns about children’s health

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New Study: Parents Support Restrictions on The Marketing of Food to Kids

I’m catching up on news items from last week and wanted to share an important new study from The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity regarding how parents view food industry marketing practices targeted toward their children, a study which, according to the Rudd Center, is the first of its kind.

Surveying 2,454 parents with children aged 2 to 17, the Rudd Center found that:

Parents were as concerned about junk food marketing to children as they were about alcohol and tobacco use in the media. The surveyed parents were highly aware of the “pester power” of food marketing and its effects on their children’s food preferences.

Photo credit: Yale Rudd Center

The report also found relatively high parental support for a variety of policies to promote healthier eating among children, including some restrictions on the advertising of food to kids.  Specifically, the report found that:

The majority of parents surveyed . . . endorsed policies to restrict food marketing to children, with highest support for prohibiting advertising on school buses (69%) and requiring companies to fund advertising for healthy and unhealthy foods equally (68%). Parents also approved of regulations to limit specific types of unhealthy food marketing to children under 12, including advertising/sponsorships in schools (65%), mobile marketing (65%), TV commercials (63%), viral marketing (62%), and internet advertising (61%).

There is much more to be learned from this groundbreaking study, including the environmental factors parents cite most often as obstacles to healthy eating and analyses of the responses along ethnic and political lines.  The entire report is found here.

Given that food industry self-regulation in this area has been almost comically weak, and given how hard (and successfully) the industry lobbied last year against purely voluntary federal advertising guidelines, it’s clear that only political pressure from consumers and parents will bring about real reforms.  In quantifying parents’ views about these issues for the first time, the Rudd Center brings us a step closer to making those reforms a reality.

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Manufacturers Continue to Target Children With Sugary Cereals Ads

Despite their participation in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulatory industry group pledged to reduce the marketing of unhealthy products to children, the food industry continues to aggressively promote its least nutritious cereals to children.

That’s the troubling, but perhaps not surprising, conclusion of a new study, the findings of which were released in summarized form today by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.  (The detailed findings will be presented this Sunday during the Biennial Conference of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in Charlotte, North Carolina.)

Entitled “the Cereal FACTS report,” the study found that although:

companies have improved the nutritional quality of most cereals marketed directly to children . . .they also have increased advertising to children for many of their least nutritious products. . . .

From 2008 to 2011, total media spending to promote child-targeted cereals increased by 34 percent.

Following up on its 2009 cereal study, the Rudd Center once again examined the nutritional quality of more than 100 brands and nearly 300 individual varieties of cereal, as well as the scope of industry advertising on television, the Internet, and social media sites.  Some key findings:

The good news is that the overall nutritional quality improved for 13 of the 14 brands advertised to children, with increases in fiber and decreases in sugar and sodium.  And children viewed fewer TV ads for 7 of 14 child-targeted brands, including Corn Pops and Honeycomb.

The bad news is that children viewed more TV ads than ever for the remaining seven child-targeted brands, including Reese’s Puffs, Froot Loops, and Pebbles.  Furthermore, some companies stepped up their Internet promotion of these brands, including the launch of a new Pebbles website from Post and a doubling in banner advertising by Kellogg on child-directed websites like  Kellogg also introduced the “first food company advergame for mobile phones and tablets targeted to children for Apple Jacks.”

The study also found that companies are increasing their targeting of Hispanic children by doubling Spanish-language TV ads.  Hispanic children’s exposure to these ads tripled.

And of course, it’s no surprise that when companies market their lower-sugar cereals like regular Cheerios, the ads are directed to parents, but when marketing the sugary stuff, kids are the target audience.  On that point, Marlene Schwartz, co-author of the study and deputy director of the Rudd Center, had this to say:

While cereal companies have made small improvements to the nutrition of their child-targeted cereals, these cereals are still far worse than the products they market to adults. They have 56 percent more sugar, half as much fiber, and 50 percent more sodium.  The companies know how to make a range of good-tasting cereals that aren’t loaded with sugar and salt. Why can’t they help parents out and market these directly to children instead?

Right on.

Overall the study provides yet more proof that industry “self-regulation” in this area has yet to be truly meaningful, and we already know that efforts to federally regulate the food industry are also likely to fail, given Big Food’s well-documented grip on our elected officials.

But the recent announcement by Disney that it’s ditching junk food advertising for kids does give me a bit of hope.  There’s clearly a market of parents out there looking for companies to support them in their efforts to feed their children well — and a growing resentment among these consumers toward companies that prey on their children with aggressive junk food marketing.

Will free market forces ever tip in favor of these consumers, forcing companies to do the right thing if only to preserve profits?

Or do you think I’ve taken up residence in Disney’s Fantasyland?

For more information on the study, visit  You can also follow the conversation about the study on Twitter at @YaleRuddCenter with the hashtag #cerealfacts.

And, by the way, later this summer I hope to share with you some more information on the Rudd Center and the many resources it offers parents in the areas of school food reform, wellness policies and more.  Stay tuned.

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Disney To Ban Junk Food Advertising to Kids: My Thoughts

The biggest news in the kid-and-food world yesterday was a joint announcement by the White House and the Walt Disney Company in which Disney promised to phase out the advertising of junk food on its child-directed television channels, web sites and radio stations.  The ban will include Saturday-morning cartoons airing on ABC stations owned by Disney.

In addition, the company introduced a new “Mickey Check” logo for food items meeting Disney’s updated nutritional standards.  The logo will appear on Disney-licensed grocery products, recipes on the company’s website and on kids’ meals and fruit cards at Disney parks and resorts.

Disney will also continue its practice (instituted in 2006) of automatically including healthful beverages and sides, such as carrots and low-fat milk, in all kids’ meals served in Disney’s theme parks (unlike McDonald’s recently “improved” Happy Meal where parents must opt-in for milk over soda), while promising to further reduce the sodium in its kids meals and to offer more balanced kids’ breakfast options.

Other aspects of the company’s “Magic of Healthy Living” initiative are laid out here.

So what do we think of all this?

In two years of reporting on toothless industry “self regulation” of children’s food advertising, I’ve learned the devil is in the details.   As we’ve discussed here, under the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (the largest industry self-regulatory scheme), major companies are free to set their own loose standards for “better for you” foods, allowing all manner of junk to pass muster.

But in this case, Disney has clearly adopted stricter set of nutritional standards which, according to the company, “are aligned to federal standards, promote fruit and vegetable consumption and call for limiting calories and reducing saturated fat, sodium, and sugar.”

The standards are certainly not perfect; it took a little while, but I was able to find some less-than-ideal cereals which would still make Disney’s advertising cut:

Experts have also questioned whether yet another “good for you” seal in the supermarket is going to create more consumer confusion, and I’m guessing that some of my colleagues in the food reform world will decry the logo as the self-interested promotion of packaged foods which should be avoided in favor of fresh, whole foods.

Those are valid concerns, but I think Disney’s initiative — especially the ad ban —  should be enthusiastically applauded.

The food industry currently directs almost two billion dollars of food advertising toward our children, most of it for unhealthful products, and we know that exposure to television junk food ads is a significant risk factor for childhood obesity.  Moreover, because children lack the critical cognitive faculties to fairly evaluate marketing messages, it has been argued that the First Amendment is no bar to the regulation of this predatory practice.  Yet, to date, even purely voluntary guidelines for food advertising to children have been easily thwarted by food lobbyists, and there’s no reason to think that legislative efforts in the near future will be more successful.

That said, I think we have no choice but to put our faith in the free market.  And this latest move by Disney signals to me that the company — hardly a touchy-feely nonprofit — sees significant marketing potential in doing the right thing.  (Speaking as just one parent, I’ll certainly give my dollars and brand loyalty to any company that makes it easier for me to navigate healthful choices for my kids.)  Moreover, it’s been noted that there is likely to be a ripple effect if Disney rivals such as Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network feel pressure to follow the company’s ban on junk food advertising.   If so, that would be huge news indeed.

My bottom line:  corporate initiatives like this one are always worthy of skepticism, and some will be deservedly bashed as empty “health-washing.”  But for better or worse, private actors — not our federal legislators, who seem inescapably captive to Big Food’s dollars — may be the future of food reform.  So in this case, I’m giving Disney high marks for making significant strides to protect our children from the worst junk food advertising out there.

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The Halloween Candy Post, 2011 Edition

You can’t blog about kids and food and not address the looming question that comes around every year at this time:  what to do about all that candy?

Last year was my first Halloween blogging here on The Lunch Tray and I tackled that knotty question in two parts.

First, I justified (shakily) my own practice of giving out candy on Halloween (and took a reader poll to find out what treats you pass out), and then I talked about my own childhood in which I was given free rein with my Halloween candy, able to keep the stash in my bedroom for weeks on end with no parental oversight.  (My own mom chimed in on the comments section of that post to address my questions about this rather shocking practice!)

So what’s new this year?

Well, for all the reasons explained in the first post cited above, I would still be OK with giving out candy as our treat.  Not thrilled, mind you, but OK with it.  But a week or so ago I was driving with both kids in the back seat and I thought, what the heck  – let’s give it a try and see what happens.  Here’s a fairly accurate paraphrasing of our conversation:

Me:  So, um  . . . what would you think if this year we gave out something different on Halloweeen?

Extremely wary nine-year-old son, narrowed eyes visible in my rear view mirror:  Like what?

Me: I don’t know . . .  what if we had something better than candy, like toys or something like that?

[Dead silence.]

Preteen daughter:  You mean, like those fake fingers we got last year?  Those were pretty cool.   But still, how can you not give out candy?  That’s so weird.

Me, sensing an opening: Yeah, like those fingers!  And we could get other stuff, like tattoos and yo-yos.  I mean, everyone’s going to give away candy .  Maybe we’d be the house everyone wants to go to for something different.

Savvy preteen daughter:  Oh my god, Mom.  Is this about obesity?

Ha!  That’s what I get for taking the indirect approach.  At any rate, we talked the whole thing through and for whatever reason – maybe just the sheer novelty of it – my kids are totally on board with giving out something other than candy this year.  (I’m shocked at this result, by the way.) So here’s what you’ll get to choose from if you stop by the TLT house next Monday:

I can only imagine the conditions in the Chinese factories that produced these cheap trinkets and I pray there’s no lead or melamine involved.  But a blogger can only tackle so many social issues at once and this year, at least, my family won’t be adding to your child’s Halloween sugar and chemical glut.

When it comes to the consuming side of things, though, I felt quite reflective after re-reading the post about my own childhood.  I’ve often argued here on TLT that treats in 2011 can’t be viewed as they were in back in the 70s (or earlier) when our entire food environment was markedly different.  And there’s even some scientific evidence that kids don’t self-regulate as well as they used to when it comes to overeating.  But, at the same time, I’ve seen with my own children that putting too tight a lock on sweets can easily backfire, leading kids to hoard, hide and binge when they get the chance.

So this year I’m going to play the whole thing by ear, erring as much as I can on the side of giving my children more freedom, and therefore more responsibility, when it comes to managing their own Halloween loot.

I’ll let you know how that pans out.  :-)

What are your thoughts on all this?
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More on Big Food’s Marketing of Junk to Kids (Links! Studies! Videos!)

In the past few days there’s been a flurry of posting in the blogosphere about a topic much discussed here on TLT in the past — Big Food’s marketing of junk food to kids.

For those new to the issue, Big Food spends almost $2 billion annually on advertising processed food products to children, a viewing audience which, studies have shown, lacks the cognitive ability to evaluate these advertisements critically (see “Nothing Goes Together Like Athletics and . . . Doritos?”).  Children are exposed to an average of twelve ads for food each day on television, and many more via the Internet and mobile phone apps.

Past industry efforts at “self-regulation” have been toothless, categorizing junk foods like Cupcake Pebbles, Lunchables Chicken Dunks and Chocolate Lucky Charms as “better for you” foods that can be freely marketed to kids.  (For more, see “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising” and the follow-up links you’ll see at the end of that post.)

This spring, a federal Interagency Working Group (IWG) comprised of the FTC, CDC, FDA and USDA issued its own voluntary guidelines for food advertising to kids which would represent a definite improvement over the prior industry-created self-regulatory scheme.  But the food industry has fought tooth and nail against the implementation of these new guidelines, both by countering them with its own revised scheme (which still would allow the foods pictured below to be advertised, among many others), and also by gaining the support of House Republicans to thwart the IWG’s efforts.

So, now to the more recent news and links:

  • Prevention Institute has just released a nice little video called “We’re Not Buying It,” calling out major food manufacturers for their predatory marketing practices:

  • The excellent Fooducate blog has a recap of a study about the influence of television food advertising on kids and the degree to which parents can – and can’t – counteract those messages.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, here is a link to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s petition urging President Obama and others to support the Interagency Working Group’s voluntary guidelines.  Please consider taking a moment to fill out this petition and let government officials know how you feel about the issue.


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