03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Advertising, Children, And Public Health

Let's say that a candy salesperson came to your front door and asked to speak to your young child--alone.

For most of us, a request like that would prompt a slammed door and a call to 911. Yet as a society, we have somehow come to accept without question the "right" of corporations to propose food sales directly to our children. But on December 15, four federal agencies made a little-noticed announcement that signaled a possible revolution in food marketing aimed at kids.

Currently, children's television programming, websites, and other media are laced with ad after ad for sugary breakfast cereals, candies, artificially colored and flavored "fruit" drinks that might contain a tablespoon or two of real juice, and greasy pizzas. What you won't often see are ads encouraging children to eat real food, things like carrots, whole wheat bread, fish, and the like.

What kind of crazy society would invest billions of dollars in biomedical research to identify the dietary causes of illnesses, but then knowingly use the most sophisticated communications technologies available to encourage young children to eat foods that cause those diseases?

To help solve the problem, Congress required the Obama administration to form an Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children--composed of the Federal Trade Commission, Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In mid-December, that group spoke at a little-publicized meeting in Washington.

One telling point at the meeting was a presentation by Dale Kunkel, professor of communication at the University of Arizona, about the industry's progress in advertising healthier foods. He analyzed foods advertised on television in 2005 and in 2009. That was the period in which a voluntary industry effort facilitated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus was set up to make improvements. Kunkel divided foods into three categories--Go (truly healthful foods), Slow (foods of medium nutritional quality), and Whoa (foods low in nutrients and/or high in harmful ingredients). The percentage of ads for Go foods remained stuck at a lowly one percent. Ads for Whoa foods declined by only about 12 percent, from 87 percent to 75 percent. Kunkel's conclusion was that the industry's self-regulatory scheme has not significantly improved the nutritional quality of ads for foods targeting children.

"We cannot win the battle against childhood obesity as long as we continue to allow the industry to bombard children with ads for foods that they really shouldn't eat very often," Kunkel said. "Other countries have already put a stop to this type of commercial exploitation, and it's time for the U.S. to act more responsibly to protect the health of the nation's children."

Following his presentation, officials from the four agencies announced that they're proposing voluntary nutrition standards that they would expect companies to abide by. The standards specify amounts of wholesome ingredients and limits on the amounts of harmful fats, refined sugars, and salt. Those standards would apply not only to television--still by far the most prominent medium for marketing to children--but also to Web sites, school programs, packaging, product placement, grocery store displays, and numerous other venues.

Roughly half the attendees represented health and consumer groups, and they were ecstatic. Many of the others represented the food and advertising industries, and they were not so happy.

The last time the government made a serious effort to protect children from rapacious marketers, the officials were practically run out of town on a rail. In the late 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission considered banning all advertising to children on the grounds that children simply didn't understand the intent of the advertising. The Washington Post charged the FTC with being a "National Nanny," a slur that still reverberates inside the Beltway.

Bowing to pressure from the food, advertising, and broadcasting industries, Congress pretty much took away the FTC's authority to issue rules for marketing directed to children, an authority that the FTC lacks to this day.

Industry was certainly happy with that outcome, but it's important to realize that one of the consequences was a fatter America. Obesity rates in young children have tripled since the FTC was stymied. Now, a third of children and teenagers are overweight or obese. Of course, junk-food marketing was not the only cause, but as the Institute of Medicine (a sister agency of the National Academy of Sciences) has found, marketing influences children's food preferences, purchase requests, diets, and health.

In this new effort, the government has only proposed voluntary marketing standards. But make no mistake about it: if companies don't abide by the standards, the government and advocates will ask Congress to pass a law to address the problem. As David C. Vladeck, director of the FTC's consumer protection bureau said at the meeting, if companies don't decide to change their practices, "Congress may decide for all of us."

The past 30 years has shown that the food and media industries, with a few exceptions, won't act responsibly on their own. We're willing to give industry this one last chance, but then it's time to legislate.

This article was co-written with CSPI Nutrition Policy Director Margo Wootan