By Ira Teinowitz
Food marketing is now officially a whipping boy for both political parties, and with heavyweights Hillary Clinton and Arnold Schwarzenegger doling out tag-team punishment to the already beleaguered industry, tougher ad codes look inevitable.
Even as the nation’s biggest fast-food marketer, McDonald’s, unveils a new worldwide healthful lifestyle ad campaign and marketers from PepsiCo to Kraft Foods rush to launch and promote healthier products, New York Sen. Clinton and California Gov. Schwarzenegger added their voices to the clamor for industrywide action.
The Federal Trade Commission weighed in, too, trying to kick-start that action with a two-day workshop this summer, to be attended by key players in the industry, to discuss food marketing to kids. Announcing the workshop last week, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said the workshop would debate whether further industry self-regulation is needed.
Asked whether the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Bureaus, which currently administers industry self-regulation, is doing enough, Ms. Majoras sounded unsure: “Some people think they are. Some people think they are not. We want to sit down and figure it out. The self-regulation scheme of CARU has been in place a number of years. Markets have changed. Our nation has changed.”
Sen. Clinton was more categorical. She said guidelines administered for the marketing industry by the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureau either need updating or need to be supplemented by additional standards for food marketers.
While Gov. Schwarzenegger last week laid into the food marketers for selling junk food in schools, Sen. Clinton targeted food advertising and marketing. “Food advertisers should be more responsible about the effect they are having,” Sen. Clinton told a Washington forum March 9, unveiling new Kaiser Foundation research into children’s media use.
“We have seen examples such as Kraft, which has agreed not to advertise unhealthy foods to kids under 12. I would like to see the entire food industry come together to develop voluntary guidelines that take their responsibility to children seriously. There are a lot of steps we can take working together-the private sector and the public sector-to curb marketing and availability of unhealthy products to our children.”
The good news for marketers is that both Ms. Majoras and Sen. Clinton appear to favor voluntary, self-regulatory action rather than legislative action.
But other legislators aren’t willing to wait for the food industry. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, agreed that the FTC’s workshop-to be jointly sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services-“could provide a forum to look at what the industry can do to be more responsible when marketing to children.” But he warned that it will be effective only if it “takes a serious look at the impact current junk food marketing has on kids and addresses the remedies that should be implemented to protect kids.”
Mr. Harkin has been even more aggressive in the past. In February he told the Institute of Medicine’s Conference on Obesity Prevention Research that the time for voluntary action has passed.
“We know that a strictly voluntary approach gets us nowhere. I take that back: It is the strictly voluntary approach that has allowed the epidemic of childhood obesity to grow so rapidly. We need action!” he said.
Marketers and advertisers defend their marketing to children and note recent moves by food marketers to introduce and promote more healthful products in the marketplace.
“Food manufacturers and advertisers agree with Sen. Clinton that obesity is a serious public health issue, and we are committed to helping Americans live healthier lifestyles,” responded a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.