Self-regulatory moves announced by the US soft drinks industry this week have been condemned by advocates of tougher legislation. But, writes Ben Cooper, self-regulation often attracts such criticism at the outset, and can only establish true credibility if given the time to prove its effectiveness.

This week's announcement in the US of a major initiative by ten food and beverage companies, aimed at shifting the emphasis of advertising to under-12s towards healthier products, along with a significant tightening of existing advertising guidelines, has once again put self-regulation under the spotlight.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) understandably trumpeted the two announcements, and in many ways they have good reason so to do. The measures are detailed and well conceived, and it is hard to argue that what is being proposed is not at least a step in the right direction, and could help in the battle against rising childhood obesity.

The ten companies behind the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes USA, have undertaken to devote at least half of their TV, radio, print and online advertising directed to children to healthier choices and/or to good nutrition messages; to limit products shown in interactive games to healthier dietary choices or incorporate healthy lifestyle messages into the games; not to advertise in elementary schools; not to engage in product placement in editorial and entertainment content; and to reduce the use of third-party licensed characters in advertising that does not meet the initiative's product or messaging criteria.

Meanwhile, the changes to the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) advertising code include a new provision across all media prohibiting advertising that "blurs the distinction between advertising and programme/editorial content in ways that would be misleading to children". The code will also address the use of commercial messages in interactive games, sometimes referred to as advergaming.

The moves attracted praise from some high-profile independent observers.
Senator Tom Harkin, a prominent advocate of improving marketing practices toward children, said: "These steps show that the industry is headed in the right direction in the ongoing battle to combat childhood obesity and surging rates of diabetes in children." Meanwhile, Deborah Platt Majoras, chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), said she was "highly encouraged" by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

However, as is often the case when self-regulatory initiatives are launched, there was some extremely vocal criticism from pressure groups and campaigners.
Gary Ruskin, executive director of advertising pressure group Commercial Alert, said: "Self-regulation is just another word for letting the fox regulate the chicken coop, which of course leads to dead chickens. Self-regulation has been a key ingredient in the childhood obesity epidemic. It is the problem, not the solution. The childhood obesity epidemic will continue until Congress passes tough new laws against marketing to children. Self-regulation is no substitute."

Jason Smith, associate executive director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI), said the guidelines represent "the failure of industry self-regulation as a serious model".

Those charged with overseeing self-regulatory programmes accept that this kind of criticism, which sometimes focuses more on the notion of self-regulation itself than on the details of the proposals, goes with the territory. It is directed at the credibility of self-regulation, and what sceptics see as the gulf between the bold rhetoric of industry-led social responsibility action and its true effectiveness.

But Kevin Keane of the American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents four of the companies participating in the initiative, contends that self-regulation has a good record in the US. He also believes Americans prefer self-regulation because of their aversion to state interference. "That's where we just disagree with those critics," he told just-drinks. "Time and time again and particularly here in America, industry has proven that it can be very effective at self-regulation and that is what the public prefers, industry acting in a responsible way without the necessity for legislation."
 
Industry advocates naturally defend self-regulation but, particularly against critics who are averse to the idea of self-regulation itself, the best defence is to show that it works.

"I think what the people who are in favour of a legislative approach are saying is that this is not going to change anything," said NARC president and CEO Lee Peeler, "and the people who support this as an important step forward are saying we want to see whether it works, whether you can deliver."

Indeed, Senator Harkin said that while the moves represented a good first step, they would be judged on results, and that was dependent on effective enforcement. "If employed successfully, this could be a good first step," Harkin said, adding that the initiative could only be "as good as the enforcement".

With regard to enforcement, Peeler said that both the CARU guidelines and the initiative were examples of "meaningful" self-regulation, with "clear criteria, transparency and accountability", adding that the guidelines were enforced through affirmative monitoring for compliance rather than just a complaints procedure.

Elisabeth Wenner, associate director of corporate and legal affairs at Kraft, one of the companies participating in the initiative and also an ABA member, said that undertaking the programme under the auspices of the CBBB was critical in establishing its credibility.

Like Peeler, Wenner believes the initiative will ultimately be judged on results but would need to be given time. "We are doing what we believe is best for our consumers and this is consistent with what we believe parents want us to do," Wenner said. "This is an industry saying 'we hear you and we're working toward helping to address those concerns you have'. Give it time. This is just the beginning."

The implication here is that when self-regulatory initiatives are first launched they are most vulnerable to the accusation of being judged as self-serving industry rhetoric. It is only when they have been running for a while with some demonstrable success that they can truly gain credibility. But by the same token, the sceptics can only really pour scorn on self-regulatory measures as ineffective when they have proved to be so.