The Obama administration has backed a proposed set of voluntary guidelines to limit marketing junk food to children.
Brian Montopoli with CBS news notes that under the guidelines, companies would only be able to advertize and promote healthy foods low in fat, sugar and sodium to kids from ages 2-17, though the final set of guidelines will likely only range up to age 12.
Although food companies already participate in a self-regulated ad program that markets to kids under 12 called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, Margo Wootan, a nutrition scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and backer of federal government guidelines, claims the initiative is deceptive because companies are allowed to set their own guidelines.
If a company sells products low in sugars but high in sodium, says Wootan, they simply tailor their guidelines by establishing a strict standard for marketing sugary products but a loose standard for marketing salty ones.
Wootan argues that the proposed set of new government guidelines would force companies to stop marketing unhealthy foods and expose these companies for participating in what amounts to a marketing scam. “They couldn’t keep saying they’re not marketing to kids so easily,” she says.
Some politicians worry that these new proposed guidelines are really nothing more than a precursor to formal regulations.
“What’s voluntary today becomes a regulation tomorrow,” says Republican Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, who accuses the government of hypocrisy. If the foods in question are “so bad and evil,” he argues, “then by all means eliminate them from the federal government nutrition programs.”
Kingston says that while the government wants to limit the advertizing of certain foods to kids, the GOVT has no problem allowing those same foods to be consumed through the Food Stamp program and WIC program, which amounts to a federal subsidy.
Republican Rep. Jo Ann Emerson also believes there’s a good chance the new proposed guidelines will become law.
“We all know that things that started as voluntary somehow become the rule of the land,” says Emerson of Missouri. “Every single regulation where we don’t know how much it’s going to cost the industry creates more uncertainty,” she says, arguing that the guidelines could ultimately cost jobs.
If the guidelines are put in place, Emerson says, “suddenly you can’t advertise water or Gatorade on some sports show because somebody who’s under 18 might look at it? I mean, come on, this is outrageous.”
Rep. Kingston had a similar grievance, and says under this new guideline a Fruit Loops commercial might not be allowed to air on an explicit and suggestive MTV teen drama.
According to Montopoli with CBS, Wootan says critics are “cherry-picking” examples of relatively healthy foods that could be affected by the guidelines, such as wheat bread with high levels of sodium, in order to distract from the larger issue as well as the negative health effects of many foods marketed to children.
Earlier this month, Lauren Keiper with Reuters cited a new study that revealed food companies that pledged not to market unhealthy food and beverages directly to children are using product placement on television shows instead.
The study will appear in the September issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The Yale study’s objective was to quantify how many product placements appear on prime-time TV and determine how many of those products children are exposed to. Keiper claims researchers analyzed Nielsen media data from 2008 and found some 35,000 brand placements had appeared on prime-time television that year.
“It is a very subtle message that kids aren’t likely to get,” said Jennifer Harris, a co-author of the study. “It is even more difficult for younger children to understand this is advertising and that it is persuading them to do something that isn’t the best thing for them.”
Harris explained that most major food companies circumvent their pledge not to pay for unhealthy food ads in children’s programing by placing their product brands in prime-time shows that are viewed by children.
Harris said Coca-Cola product placements on American Idol was the most viewed brand. Children saw five times as many product placements as they did traditional, paid television commercials for Coca-Cola products.
The same product placement technique is used on adults in the TV and film industry. For example, when an actor on TV or in a film is seen typing on a notebook computer, and the brand name is prominently displayed, that’s a product placement ad.