If big food thought its landmark concession to voluntarily shift, yank or otherwise banish some $1 billion in kid-targeted junk-food marketing was enough to quell critics, it was wrong. Now those critics are going after the media companies that used to enjoy the marketers' big bucks.
Even as 11 major food marketers announced plans to abandon or trim those efforts toward younger children, critics are clamoring for more -- more restrictions and more marketers. Regulators and watchdogs are now pressing for similar action from media companies, including Viacom, Time Warner and the broadcast TV networks, along with ConAgra and Chuck E. Cheese. Not to mention calling for the head of Burger King's king. "These are laudable initiatives, but make no mistake: More companies need to be involved, pledging to make more meaningful changes in products, marketing and media messages," said Federal Trade Commissioner Jon Leibowitz.
Among the pledges made last week: Coca-Cola and Hershey won't aim advertising at kids younger than 12. Mars/Masterfoods won't advertise any of its candies to kids but might at some point advertise its better-for-you snacks. PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Kellogg, General Mills, McDonald's, Unilever and Campbell Soup will limit all their marketing of food to children younger than 12 to more healthy foods. Finally, Cadbury Adams will either target all its Bubblicious ads to kids older than 12 or picture healthy lifestyles in the ads.
But that might not be enough. Speaking at the FTC/Health and Human Services forum on obesity, where the pledge was unveiled, Lydia P. Parnes, director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said significant industry players have stepped up to plate, "but I join other panelists in asking [the others], 'Why aren't you here?'"
Policies in review
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the action an "important step forward," but he added he "would like the media industries to come forward with their own set of voluntary commitments. We haven't heard anything from Nickelodeon or the Cartoon Network, and they have a responsibility to join."
There were some hints the pressure was having an effect.
Burger King said in a statement to Advertising Age that it was reviewing its children's-advertising policies.
"Burger King Corp. complies with all [Children's Advertising Review Unit] guidelines with respect to kids' advertising. ... At this time, we are in the process of a review and will be forthcoming about any changes to our current procedures," the company said.
Chuck E. Cheese said its advertising doesn't promote specific products.
"Our advertising to kids does not focus on or actively promote our food products," a spokeswoman said. "We have sharpened the emphasis in our kids' ads to demonstrate the fun and activities at Chuck E. Cheese's." She added that the company is reviewing guidelines.
The commitments from the participating marketers were announced as part of an initiative by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The pledges are public and posted on the bureau's website, and the bureau will monitor company compliance.
The commitment comes as the FTC readies subpoenas for 44 food and fast-food companies for a congressionally mandated study on how those products are advertised to kids.
The initiative means ads for several well-known products will vanish from kids programming unless the products can be reformulated (see box above). General Mills, for example, will have to stop advertising Trix by 2009 in the unlikely event the amount of sugar in it can't be dropped.
It remains to be seen if the shifts will have any real effect. As it is, ads for the products are unlikely to disappear completely. Some will simply swap out "junk food" advertising for food with a few less grams of sugar. And there are differences among the companies as to what qualifies as children's media.
But C. Lee Peeler, president-CEO of CBBB's National Advertising Review Council, said the bureau intends to make sure the companies keep to the spirit and requirements of the initiative.
And what will this mean for ad spending in the category? According to TNS Media Intelligence, the 11 marketers in the initiative spent $288 million last year on Viacom's Nickelodeon and Time Warner's Cartoon Network and another $27 million on Saturday-morning network TV.
While common sense would dictate a massive decline in ad spending, some have suggested the pledges could actually boost it. They argue that the ban could spur innovation that eventually leads to new campaigns to introduce and support more-healthful kids' foods.
A spokesman for Nickelodeon claimed the "financial impact [of the pledges] is a nonissue for Nickelodeon because most of the products [advertised on the network] already fit healthy criteria or will otherwise be reformulated."
Lance Friedmann, Kraft's senior VP-global health and wellness, said the company, which initially trimmed spending, could raise kids' spending as it develops new products.