March 9, 2010 -- Most companies lack meaningful policies to curb the marketing of high-fat and high-sugar junk food to children, according to a report by a consumer watchdog group.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) gives failing grades to nearly three-quarters of the 128 food, restaurant, and media companies it investigated. The group is concerned that food marketers continue to aggressively promote unhealthy foods to children despite high obesity rates and regulators' pleas to rein in ads.
Packaged food companies performed much better than media firms or restaurants, the group says. But the report finds that overall 68% of the companies have no policy governing marketing to kids.
Many companies signed onto a voluntary self-regulation system after the regulators fielded complaints about aggressive junk food advertising and the licensing of characters and movies to make junk food more attractive to children.
In 2008, the Federal Trade Commission found that companies spent $870 million marketing food to children under 12. An additional $1 billion went to marketing aimed at adolescents. Two years earlier, "cross-promotions tied foods and beverages to about 80 movies, television shows, and animated characters that appeal primarily to children," the commission said in a report published in July 2008.
The agency urged food, restaurant, and media companies to come up with comprehensive policies controlling junk food marketing to kids.
"If companies were marketing bananas and broccoli, we wouldn't be concerned. But instead, most of the marketing is for sugary cereals, fast food, snack foods, and candy. And this junk food marketing is a major contributor to childhood obesity," says Margo G. Wootan, CSPI's nutrition policy director.
Curbing Food Ads to Kids
The group gave its highest grade of B+ to Mars Inc. The companies with grades of B were Procter & Gamble Company and Qubo Venture, a media company that places Saturday morning programming on NBC, Telemundo, and other networks. Several food companies, including Mars, Procter & Gamble, and Cadbury Adams, have policies calling for no advertising to children under 12.
Six companies got a B-, 17 got a C+, C, or C-, seven companies got a D+ or D, none received a D-, and 95 received an F. The complete report card is published on CSPI's web site.
"In 2007 shortly after the launch of the Qubo kids channel, we established very stringent nutritional guidelines for advertising only healthy foods to children," Brandon Burgess, chairman and CEO of ION Media Networks, the Qubo Channel's parent company, says in a statement.
But many companies advertise not directly through television, but more indirectly through product tie-ins, online games, and event sponsorships, the report said.
It found that while two-thirds of food companies had child-targeted marketing polices, only one-quarter of restaurants and one-fifth of entertainment companies had the policies. And while many of those policies lay out nutritional standards for licensing characters for food ads, fewer impose strict rules for what kind of foods can be advertised, the CSPI report found.
WebMD made calls to several trade associations to get their reaction to the CSPI report. None responded in time for publication.