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Food fight: New ad regs do little to settle childhood obesity debate

After several years of public scrutiny and government pressure to curb junk food advertising to kids, new food and beverage ad restrictions hit both the U.K. and the U.S. as KidScreen was going to press. In both countries the developments were met with mixed reviews from marketers, broadcasters and consumer groups.
December 1, 2006

After several years of public scrutiny and government pressure to curb junk food advertising to kids, new food and beverage ad restrictions hit both the U.K. and the U.S. as KidScreen was going to press. In both countries the developments were met with mixed reviews from marketers, broadcasters and consumer groups.

Across the pond, communications regulator Ofcom finally announced broadcast restrictions that had been in the works for three years (for the full text of the decision, go to ofcom.org.uk). While not the most stringent of the four options floated by the regulator, the ban comes down heavily against what it classifies as ‘junk food TV advertising.’ Junk food ads can no longer appear in and around any kids-targeted programming on dedicated kids channels or kids shows on the U.K. terrestrial nets. Furthermore, the ban extends to youth-oriented and adult programs that attract a significantly higher-than-average proportion of viewers under 16. Kids channels will have until the end of 2008 to phase in the rules, but ad campaigns for regular channels commissioned after January 2007 will have to comply.

Of course, the U.K. indie production community is reeling from the decision. London-based trade broadcasting association Pact says the ban will result in a loss of about US$47.4 million in investment in new U.K. children’s programming. It’s too soon to say what the full impact of the decision will be on the kids industry as a whole, but it’s clear neither opponents nor supporters of ad regulation are happy with Ofcom. Health advocates in the country have criticized Ofcom for not implementing the proposed 9 p.m. watershed ban. They argue children under 16 would still see junk food ads on so-called adult programs such as soap operas and are pushing for an all-out ban.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., the long-awaited revisions of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s (CARU) guidelines were announced by the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The council has rolled out the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary, self-regulatory program helmed by 10 major food and beverage companies including giants Coca-Cola and General Mills.

The new CARU guidelines propose banning ads that ‘blur the distinction between advertising and [a program's] editorial content in ways that would be misleading to children.’ Under watch will be adver-gaming sites, which are expected to clearly identify integrated commercials as advertising. The revised guidelines also suggest food marketers refrain from depicting over-eating or discouraging healthy food or lifestyle choices in their campaigns.

The National Advertising Review Council Board chairman Nancy Wiese says the council will continue to review issues of product placement in children’s programming and advertising phone services to kids.

As part of the initiative, the food companies pledge to devote half of their media advertising for children under 12 to promoting healthier food choices and physical activity and limiting food shown in interactive games to healthy choices. They also agree not to advertise food or beverages in elementary schools, not to partake in food product placement ads in kids programs, and to reduce the use of third-party characters in advertising.

Consumer groups slammed the new initiative as being designed to protect marketers, not kids. And Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, a critic of kids junk food advertising who spoke on the issue at last year’s KidScreen Summit, conceded that the initiatives mark progress, but said the program leaves companies leeway to continue marketing unhealthy foods to kids. He warned U.S. Congress will begin examining the issue closely in the coming months.

One thing’s clear right now on both sides of the pond, this issue is far from being settled. Stay tuned.

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