Jan. 6, 2005 -- A watchdog group called on food and beverage makers Thursday to scale back advertising of junk food to children, warning that relentless marketing is contributing to rising rates of obesity among young people.
The report calls on food manufacturers, media companies, schools, and others to limit child-targeted marketing to foods that meet criteria for good nutrition. It also asks companies to scale back the use of marketing techniques pairing unhealthy food with popular cartoon characters, movies, and other images that children enjoy but critics say undermine the ability of parents to monitor what kids eat.
Ideally, only healthful foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products would be marketed to kids, writes the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in a news release.
"If companies want to put [Finding] Nemo toys in bags of baby carrots, we're all for it. But that's not what's happening," says Margo G. Wootan, who authored the guidelines for the CSPI.
Instead, the group displayed dozens of food products identifiable not only by their high-fat or sugar contents, but also by bright packaging, movie tie-ins, or cartoon character endorsement on boxes. "What we're really asking is that marketers act responsibly, and not urge kids to eat foods that could harm their health," says Wootan.
Advocates have long called for curbs on advertising aimed at minors, complaining that companies target youngsters who spend more time than ever absorbing media messages.
Federal lawmakers and regulators have balked at efforts to curb food industry advertising, usually citing free speech concerns. Wootan says that Thursday's guidelines are a call for companies to voluntarily change their marketing practices.
Companies should now cease targeting children for advertising about foods high in fat, sugar, or sodium or those that are delivered in unreasonably large portion sizes, the guidelines state. They also call on media companies and schools to refuse to market foods and drinks that do not meet basic nutritional standards for kids.
The CSPI suggests that companies market:
- Drinks that contain at least 50% fruit juice and no added caloric sweeteners
- Water and seltzer without added caloric sweeteners
- Low-fat and fat-free milk, including flavored milks
They also say marketers should offer foods that provide basic nutrients and have:
- Less than 30% of total calories from fat (excluding fat from nuts, seeds, and peanut or other nut butters)
- Less than 10% of calories from saturated plus hydrogenated fat
- Less than 25% of calories from added sugars
- No more than 150 milligrams of sodium per serving of snack items; no more than 480 milligrams per serving for soups, pastas, meats, and main dishes; and no more than 600 milligrams for meals
More than 15% of children aged 6 to 19 qualify as obese. This percentage has more than doubled over the last two decades. Many more are identified as overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 19 million American children over age 6 are now obese or overweight, putting them at higher risk for developing diabetes, heart disease, and a variety of other illnesses.
An Institute of Medicine report issued in September called for drastic action against rising childhood obesity. Experts stated then that food industry efforts at self-regulation of child-directed advertising were ineffective and should be rethought.
Industry groups responded Thursday that the guidelines unfairly focus on one narrow aspect of an obesity problem that has complex and wide-ranging causes. A statement issued by the Grocery Manufacturers of America said that the guidelines "miss the point."
"Effective solutions must incorporate sound nutrition, increased physical activity, consumer and parent education, and community support. Above all, the focus should be on giving parents the information they need to ensure their children eat a nutritionally balanced diet and get the right amount of physical activity," the statement said.
Daniel J. Jaffe, chief lobbyist for the Association of National Advertisers, Inc. tells WebMD that regardless of advertising, parents still have the final say over what children consume. "If kids say they want something, the parent can say no," he says.
Consumer advocates complain that industry advertising has reached the point where it overwhelms parents' ability to monitor what their children eat. Children are now exposed to an average of 58 advertising television messages per day, about half of which push food products, according to the CSPI. Many more pitches arrive over the Internet and in movie product placements, they say.
"Parental authority is undermined by wide discrepancies between what parents tell their children is healthful to eat and what marketing promotes as desirable to eat," the guidelines state.
American firms doubled their child-directed advertising from $6.9 billion to $15 billion per year between 1992 and 2002, says James McNeal, PhD, president of the McNeal & Kids advertising consulting firm and a former professor of marketing at Texas A&M University. Between one-third and one-half of those dollars are spent by food and beverage makers, he tells WebMD.
Industry groups point out that the average number of television commercials broadcast to kids per hour has not changed over the last decade.
McNeal says that children are "potentially getting more opportunities to view ads" mostly because of largely unmeasured advertising on web sites and in widespread cross-marketing that ties foods to entertainment products kids enjoy.
"The only way marketing gets in the door is when the parents turn the house over to the marketers," he says. "The parents have ceded the household to marketers gradually but surely."