Advertising and Food Industries Take Major Steps to Improve Marketing to Kids
By Jim Davidson, Polsinelli Shalton Welte Suelthaus
The year 2007 will go down as a benchmark year for food manufacturing and advertising industry achievements designed to address the issue of childhood obesity in America. Nevertheless, in spite of major leaps forward to change the nature of advertising directed at children under 12 years of age, and the introduction of a broad range of new “better for you” products, the pressure continues to mount in Washington, D.C. to adopt new regulatory restrictions or enact new legislation designed to regulate the advertising of food products.
All this is taking place during a year in which U.S. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin, have overseen the collaboration by a Joint Task Force on Childhood Obesity and the Media that is working to complete a comprehensive report to document the numerous programs initiated by food manufacturers, advertising organizations and the media to promote exercise and better for you foods for kids. At the same time the report is expected to set out some future objectives for the food, media and advertising industries to tackle.
Finally, against this backdrop, two new initiatives illustrate the positive leadership demonstrated by the food and advertising industries to provide nutrition education as a part of in-store marketing of food products and to work directly with our nation’s schools to improve physical and nutrition education.
Legislation in Congress
One of the latest legislative offerings has come from Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) who has introduced a Senate Amendment that would add a section on “Preventing Childhood Obesity” to the comprehensive Farm Bill that is pending in the United States Senate. While the Farm Bill may have to be put off until 2009 because of efforts to attach unrelated amendments to it, the amendment signals the intention of Senator Kennedy and many others to seek legislation that would impose a range of requirements on the private sector and specifically on advertising.
The amendment draws provisions from Senator Kennedy’s “Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act,” (S. 799) introduced in the last Congress. It calls for creation of a national Leadership Commission on Obesity and a National Obesity Summit to develop a five-year plan to implement recommendations of the Institute of Medicine study, “Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity.” The amendment also directs the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to develop restrictive regulations on advertising of foods to children.
Federal Trade Commission Update
The FTC this summer held a day of hearings to update the nation on what has occurred since the Commission’s 2005 public workshop on childhood obesity. The session was entitled, “Weighing In: A Check-Up on Marketing, Self Regulation and Childhood Obesity.” FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras told industry and advocacy leaders, “The obesity crisis did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight. Self-regulation is more effective than government action, and we are encouraged by the progress thus far.”
Elaine Kolish, a former FTC official who now directs the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, updated the conference on the status of the commitments by 11 companies (now 13) that have pledged to limit 100 percent of their advertising to kids under 12 to food products that meet standards for healthier nutrition content.
The companies taking part in the Initiative represent at least two-thirds of all marketing to children based on television advertising expenditures.
While the industry messages were positive, critics from the academic and children’s advocacy communities challenged the companies to do much better. Kathryn Montgomery, a professor in the American University School of Communication, said the industry Initiative simply is a reaction to immense regulatory and legal pressure, and that self-regulation must be backed up by new legislative requirements. That legislation must address not only television but the full range of marketing techniques and must apply to teenagers and not just children under 12, she said.
Important New Industry Initiatives – The Healthy Schools Partnership
The food manufacturing industry is not only changing how it advertises products for children, it is responding to encouragement from the FTC and others by stepping up to address the challenge of childhood obesity on numerous fronts. One of the most promising is The Healthy Schools Partnership pilot program. It employs an innovative approach by combining nutrition education with physical activity. This 12-week pilot program will involve more than 1,000 students in the fifth through ninth grades in four Kansas City schools. It is operated through a partnership between the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition (ACFN), PE4life and the American Dietetic Association Foundation (ADAF).
Through the pilot program, kids are shown first-hand the benefits of being active and adopting a healthy lifestyle. Instead of relying of traditional physical education programs that favor athletes, the program uses fun sports and fitness activities that everyone can participate and excel in. The students are taught how to balance their food intake with their energy expenditure. Energy balance is not taught as an abstract concept - the concept is integrated into the physical education classes and throughout the school environment. To help teach the program, seven nutrition coaches — all registered dietitians — are working with the school physical education teachers. Staffing nutrition coaches in schools is unique to any program of this kind, and is designed to provide a model for many of the premier fitness centers in the nation.
In the Food Aisles of Grocery Stores
Finally, the food and beverage industry is demonstrating to the public and to policymakers how they can use in store marketing expertise to help customers incorporate the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and MyPyramid advice into their daily diets. The Take a Peak program is a pioneering initiative to promote the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPyramid, the government’s food guidance system, in grocery store aisles, where consumers ultimately make their food choices. Through clear in-store messaging, Take a Peak provides easy-to-follow advice that shows consumers how small, progressive changes in their purchasing habits and diets can improve their health. The program is run by the Grocery Manufacturers Association/Food Products Association (GMA/FPA), the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) and MatchPoint Marketing.
Take a Peak, initially launched in seventeen states and over 2,000 retail locations, reaches millions of consumers through point-of-purchase messages and materials, including aisle banners, informational kiosks, floor graphics, educational coupon booklets and other displays in grocery stores nationwide. The program provides consumers with easy ways to transition to healthier diets. The featured foods show how small changes what people buy can improve their overall health. The program makes sure that only food and beverage products that meet specific nutritional criteria and provide a meaningful contribution toward helping consumers meet the goals of MyPyramid are eligible for the Take a Peak program.
The Upcoming Year
Congress comes back to Washington in December to try to finish some appropriations bills and some lingering legislation. The major action however is expected early next year as presidential candidate campaign themes vie for the public’s interest. It is not unlikely that a campaign that will debate how we move forward with a national healthcare strategy will focus on the contribution that unhealthy diets and lack of exercise make to higher healthcare costs. For many in Washington, the answer lies in more legislation or regulation. It promises to be a busy 2008.