Ten major food and drink makers, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Campbell Soup, announced Tuesday that their child-oriented advertising will do more to promote health foods and exercise.
The companies, which account for two-thirds of child-targeted food and drink commercials on TV, agreed to reduce the use of outside characters — think Shrek and the Little Mermaid — to pitch unhealthy foods. They also said they would not advertise in elementary schools and would ensure their online “advergames” either promote good health or healthy products, among other measures. Half their ads will focus on foods that qualify as healthy or on nutrition and exercise issues.
The companies said they had no plans to stop selling or promoting sugary cereals or fatty French fries, and critics were quick to say the voluntary restrictions will have little effect.
“The only changes from the status quo in these guidelines occur at the fringes,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “If a ’healthy lifestyle message’ means that Ronald McDonald is pedaling a bike while peddling junk food, that message still does more harm than good.”
The companies’ announcement comes a month after five big snack food companies agreed to voluntary restrictions on food they sell in schools as national concern about childhood obesity mounts.
“It would be a huge benefit for kids to get messages about good lifestyles and exercise,” said C. Lee Peeler, executive vice president at the Council of Better Business Bureaus, which is to monitor compliance with the voluntary rules. “It’s a major step forward by the industry.”
The companies’ plans are to take effect next year as 32-year-old advertising guidelines are replaced. As with the old rules, egregious violations would be referred to the Federal Trade Commission. Enforcement actions were rare.
All 10 companies, which are charter members of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, already have internal policies on how they sell to kids. Because of that, it appears there will not be major changes on some fronts.
Tony the Tiger won't go away
While companies might have to change the way they use some characters from TV and movie tie-ins, they are free to use their own characters, such as Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger, in connection with any product.
Bill Lamar, the chief marketing officer for McDonald’s, said his company does not have any national advertising campaigns in schools now. He said the “Passport to Play,” a curriculum the company offers to physical education teachers, is about education, not marketing, and therefore will continue under the new rules, despite objections from some groups.
The new rules also won’t mean that some products high in sugar will get less airtime on after-school TV shows. Celeste A. Clark, a Kellogg Company senior vice president, said some of her company’s sugary cereals — she calls them “presweetened” — have nutrients kids need and qualify as healthy.
Campbell Soup spokesman John Faulkner said his company will probably need to change its ad campaigns only “at the margins” in part because of efforts that have reduced sodium in the company’s kid-oriented soups so they, too, qualify as healthy.
Faulkner said that even if changes are minimal, it’s significant that the companies are agreeing to more transparency and oversight. “It’s the desire of all of us to get in front of this with voluntary measures rather than to be regulated,” Faulkner said.
Kids make the call
Tiffini Sample, a 34-year-old mom, said a change in advertising will do little to change her 2-year-old daughter’s attitudes. Even if McDonald’s promotes its apple snacks, that’s not what her toddler wants.
“She passes the Golden Arches and she says, ‘French fries,”’ said Sample, of Bellmawr.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, perhaps Congress’ most outspoken critic of the way companies market to kids, said he would watch the efforts closely and might support mandatory regulation.
“If employed successfully, this could be a good first step,” Harkin said. “But the program leaves companies significant leeway to continue marketing unhealthy foods to kids.”
Besides McDonald’s, The Coca-Cola Co. and Campbell Soup Co., the companies that agreed to the self-regulation are: Cadbury Schweppes USA, General Mills Inc.; The Hershey Co.; Kellogg Co.; Kraft Foods Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and Unilever.