April 29th, 2011

U.S. Seeks New Limits on Food Ads for Children

The New York Times

Will Toucan Sam go the way of Joe Camel?

The federal government proposed sweeping new guidelines on Thursday that could push the food industry to overhaul how it advertises cereal, soda pop, snacks, restaurant meals and other foods to children.

Citing an epidemic of childhood obesity, regulators are taking aim at a range of tactics used to market foods high in sugar, fat or salt to children, including the use of cartoon characters like Toucan Sam, the brightly colored Froot Loops pitchman, who appears in television commercials and online games as well as on cereal boxes.

Regulators are asking food makers and restaurant companies to make a choice: make your products healthier or stop advertising them to youngsters.

“Toucan Sam can sell healthy food or junk food,” said Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the University of Arizona who studies the marketing of children’s food. “This forces Toucan Sam to be associated with healthier products.”

The guidelines, released by the Federal Trade Commission, encompass a broad range of marketing efforts, including television and print ads, Web sites, online games that act as camouflaged advertisements, social media, product placements in movies, the use of movie characters in cross-promotions and fast-food children’s meals. The inclusion of digital media, such as product-based games, represents one of the government’s strongest efforts so far to address the extension of children’s advertising into the online world, which children’s health advocates say is a growing problem.

The guidelines are meant to be voluntary, but companies are likely to face heavy pressure to adopt them. Companies that choose to take part would have five to 10 years to bring their products and marketing into compliance.

“There’s clearly a demand hidden behind the velvet glove of the voluntary language,” said Dan Jaffe, an executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers, a trade group that represents marketers like Kraft Foods and Campbell Soup.

By explicitly tying advertising to childhood obesity, the government is suggesting there is a darker side to cuddly figures like Cap’n Crunch, the Keebler elves, Ronald McDonald and the movie and television characters used to promote food. It also raises the question of whether they might ultimately share the fate of Joe Camel, the cartoon figure used to promote Camel cigarettes that was phased out amid allegations that it was meant to entice children to smoke.

Read more: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/29/business/29label.html?_r=1&ref=business

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