Kids’ Food Marketing Slims Down

By Stacey King Gordon

Facing growing pressure to help reverse childhood obesity, 11 food and beverage companies introduce new standards for healthier food, packaging and marketing overall.

Two years after a task force of business and government leaders called on the food industry to fight the childhood obesity epidemic, 11 leading food and beverage manufacturers publicly committed in July to sweeping changes in the way they market their products to children.
The Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB), which led the charge for change, announced the companies’ commitment to “self-regulation” during a forum hosted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C.
Included in the announcement were Cadbury Adams USA LLC, Campbell Soup Co., the Coca-Cola Co., General Mills Inc., the Hershey Co., Kellogg Co., Kraft Foods Inc., Mars Inc., McDonald’s USA LLC, PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever. According to the CBBB, these companies represent two-thirds of TV ad spending for food products and beverages in 2004.
The announcement is the most symbolic effort made by the food and beverage industry to address scrutiny and criticism from a growing chorus of legislators, federal agencies and consumers’ groups, who have pinpointed marketing practices targeting children as a major influence on American kids’ poor eating habits.
With a few exceptions, the most fervent critics of the food industry on this issue acknowledged the July commitment as a major step forward.
“I join with parents and families across the country today in commending these companies who have such a tremendous impact on what children in America are eating and drinking,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who introduced legislation that would restore the FTC’s power to restrict marketing to children and has been one of the most outspoken advocates for marketing guidelines.
Though all pledges were approved by the CBBB, each company released its own guidelines based on varying criteria. Some, such as Coca-Cola and Hershey, reiterated existing policies not to run ads in media primarily targeted to children under the age of 12. Eight of the companies announced they would restrict advertising to “better-for-you” foods. The companies all agreed to put their programs in place no later than the end of 2008.
For a few of the companies the changes are substantial. Kellogg’s, which released its program several days in advance of the other companies’ announcements, said it plans to either reformulate products that don’t meet its new nutrition criteria or discontinue marketing them to kids—a change Kellogg’s says will affect 50 percent of its products.
In addition, the companies that will continue to advertise to children under 12 agreed to limit or discontinue the use of third-party licensed characters in ads or packaging. Instead, they are working with children’s media companies to feature characters exclusively on nutritional products—for example, General Mills will feature Nickelodeon’s Dora the Explorer on a line of vegetables aimed at kids.
“These pledges are going to affect the type of products that children see in advertising directed to them, as well as the number of ads directed to children under 12,” said Elaine Kolish, director of the CBBB’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.
Increasing pressure drives company decisions
Critics have been quick to point out that the companies’ nutrition and marketing guidelines, while admirable, are not standardized and therefore will be difficult to monitor and enforce. But supporters argue that such standardization would be virtually impossible.
“The program was specifically designed to encourage as many companies as possible to participate. The idea of having one nutrition standard would have been counterproductive and would have taken longer to reach agreement,” said Kolish. “The fact that the standards look a little different isn’t really troublesome because they are rooted in sound nutritional policies. And they happen to reflect the realities of their food portfolios.”
In fact, it’s more conforming standards, enforced through legislation, that food and beverage companies are trying to avoid by self-regulating their marketing efforts. The United Kingdom, for instance, followed the lead of other European countries and recently enacted regulations that tightly limit advertising to kids.
The FTC followed by announcing it was considering requiring 50 U.S. food companies to divulge their ad and marketing spending.
Combine that with legislation currently in committee on Capitol Hill, and it’s likely that food and beverage companies will continue to face scrutiny, and possibly government regulations, regarding their marketing practices to kids.
“These companies have seen the writing on the wall,” says Suzy Badaracco, who tracks, navigates and predicts food industry trends through her business Culinary Tides. “The Food and Drug Administration is seen as weak on this issue, and the food companies are positioned in consumers’ eyes as being saviors. In a way it’s a little embarrassing that companies are ahead of the FDA on this. But the companies didn’t come up with the idea on their own.”
Companies have faced increasing pressure since the release of a 2005 report by the Institute of Medicine, which looked at marketing’s influence on childhood obesity. The report definitively linked TV advertising and children’s diets, though the effect of marketing overall was not as conclusive.
Regardless, the report prompted outcry by lawmakers and consumer groups, which called on the FTC to enact guidelines to prevent “unfair” marketing practices.
Later that year, the FTC and HHS held a forum that included comments from trade and health associations, academics, consultants, government agencies, company executives and consumer groups.
Following the event, organizers issued a report that called for food companies and children’s media to provide lower-calorie, more nutritious food options, and “at the same time make those options more appealing to children,” according to FTC chairman Deborah Platt Majoras.
The forum last July where the 11 companies announced changes to their marketing practices was meant to be a two-year status check on how the industry was answering that call.
Kraft was the first company to step forward, releasing remarkable changes in 2005 that ruled out all but five of its products as qualifying for advertising to kids under 12.
Then, in early 2006, two consumer groups teamed up with Massachusetts parents to announce their intentions to file a lawsuit against Kellogg’s and the TV network Nickelodeon. The groups claimed the companies were “directly harming kids’ health since the overwhelming majority of food products they market to children are high in sugar, saturated and trans fat, or salt, or almost devoid of nutrients.”
Kellogg’s agreed to address the plaintiffs’ concerns out of court, leading to its wide-reaching commitment to change its products and marketing.
Defending the right to advertise
In the aftermath of the “self-regulation” announcement this July, many stakeholders are scrambling to figure out what the new commitments really mean. A major obesity report by the Joint Task Force on Childhood Obesity, scheduled for release in July, was postponed until September to give legislators time to study the companies’ various terms and criteria.
The CSPI immediately responded by commending the 11 companies but calling on other prominent food manufacturers and restaurant chains to fall in line.
“We saw the same thing with organics and trans fat. It’s not going to go away,” says Bandaracco. “There’s only a downside to not jumping on this.”
Companies that plan to keep advertising to kids have indicated that both their product ingredients and their marketing strategies will change. During the July forum, General Mills spokesperson Christina Shea indicated the company would favor changing product ingredients where possible. “We certainly intend to reformulate products so that we can advertise them, we can have them online and can use licensed characters on the packaging,” she said. “If we can’t we won’t advertise or market them to children.”
But the company has also tweaked its marketing strategies to comply with its new commitment. “When we adopted our nutrition criteria in 2006, we stopped advertising some products,” says Tom Forsythe, the company’s VP of corporate communications. “Packaging has changed on some products. Marketing plans have changed. Advertising plans have changed.”
Impact on packaging
At the shelf, the most prominent changes will be a scaling back of the use of third-party characters, as well as increased communications about nutrition on the front of packages. In the breakfast cereals aisle, consumers will soon see prominent graphics featuring daily nutritional values on the fronts of General Mills’ and Kellogg’s products. Unilever adopted a similar Eat Smart/Drink Smart logo, which will highlight products that meet the company’s dietary guidelines.
The biggest question, of course, is whether the changes will make a discernible dent in the childhood obesity problem. Many believe food companies’ changes are simply one piece of the puzzle. “It has to be linked into a ton of other efforts—changes in school food services, banning trans fats, and adult obesity, because children are watching adults,” says Badaracco. “Right now we have little pieces of a trend that aren’t communicating with each other yet. Only when they start to be tied in together can we really address obesity.”
In the meantime, companies are defending their marketing practices, doing what they can to address health concerns while retaining the right to stay competitive. “Kids who eat cereal frequently weigh less—have healthier body weights—than kids who eat cereal less frequently,” says Forsythe. “We advertise that message to [parents]. We advertise to health professionals. We also communicate about our products to kids, when and where appropriate. We do believe that products can be advertised responsibly. And we advertise our products responsibly in every case.”  
Who’s responsible for your kids?
When asked who is directly responsible for their personal health, 82 percent of adults pointed to themselves in a March 2006 Food for Life study by marketing consultancy Yankelovich ( Though willing to claim responsibility for their own food choices, parents responded much differently when it came to their kids. According to the study, 71 percent believe marketing foods of poor nutritional quality to kids is unfair. Seventy-one percent of respondents also indicated that food companies shouldn’t market unhealthy foods to children using cartoon characters.
Retailers use characters to promote healthy eating
The Produce for Better Health Foundation worked with 2,000 Wal-Mart Super Centers and Neighborhood Markets in a promotion directed to kids and their parents last year. Dubbed “Get Curious about Good Health”, the promotion was timed to coincide with the release of the Curious George movie to boost awareness of PBH’s message of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption among children. Kids visiting Wal-Mart produce departments received Curious George-themed activity books, while their parents received a recipe booklet prominently featuring fruits and vegetables.