Advertising to children in the spotlight in US

Advertising to children in the spotlight in US

Industry self-regulation of advertising food and drink to children continues to focus on direct advertising through children’s TV programmes. But, asks Ben Cooper, do food and drinks companies need to look harder at the amount of advertising reaching children through mainstream programming?

The issue of children’s exposure to food and drink advertising is likely to become a subject of political debate in the US later this year, when the conclusions of the Interagency Working Group (IWG) looking into the subject are presented to Congress.

The publication last month of uniform criteria for child-directed advertising by the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a self-regulatory programme comprising 17 companies, has significantly improved the chances of industry being given more time to show that self-regulation can work.

There will be continued pressure for the Government to introduce its own voluntary guidelines according to the IWG’s stricter criteria, but there are a number of reasons why the case for giving self-regulation more time may well prevail.

First, while the CFBAI move was portrayed by campaigners as a cynical pre-emptive move to weaken the case for government action, it has undoubtedly made self-regulation a more credible option.

The previous system, where each company used its own criteria, was widely criticised by campaigners who suggested it allowed companies to pick and choose which nutritional aspects to stress, to their advantage.

The fact that the new CFBAI guidelines would require between 25% and 33% of products currently advertised directly to children to be reformulated, against around 80% under the IWG criteria, shows that industry is still being rather selective in what it commits to. Nevertheless, the new guidelines have been welcomed by many stakeholders, including campaigners and officials at government agencies, as a step forward.

CFBAI can also demonstrate some progress since it was formed in 2006, as detailed in its progress report last year, though the fact that it has now launched new guidelines suggests CFBAI members recognise they needed to go faster.  A recent study, led by Dr Lisa Powell of the University of Illinois and the Bridging the Gap research centre, while critical of the level of overall junk food advertising still reaching children, did show progress on child-directed advertising, with soft drinks leading the way.

Although the CFBAI guidelines only apply to children under 12, whilst the IWG guidelines cover children up to 17, this broader age definition may actually hamper the IWG proposals gaining political support. Even campaigners have signalled that they are happy with the under-12 focus.

CFBAI members have also pledged to have the uniform standards in place by 2013, two years before the proposed IWG guidelines.

While the IWG guidelines would have stricter nutritional criteria, this may not make them more compelling for many politicians. Since the IWG’s work began in late 2009, industry advocates have been saying that its criteria are too stringent and unworkable.

There are other political factors which point to the likelihood of the self-regulatory option winning the day.

When President Obama came to power he made tackling childhood obesity a major priority. His first year was marked by some fairly tough talking by his appointees at agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), both of which form part of the IWG.

Since then, the Democrats have lost control of the House, and even though the Democrats still control the Senate, the Obama administration is having to pick its battles amid concurrent debates over government overreach and public spending.  Self-regulation has the dual advantages of being cheaper and, by definition, less interventionist.

However, the ensuing political debate may not be restricted to the relative merits of the CFBAI and the IWG criteria.

As Dr Poole’s recent study underlines, there is also the question of children’s exposure to advertising of less healthy foods and beverages via mixed-audience programming to consider.

CFBAI believes it has made progress here too. In September 2010, it announced it had “substantially harmonised” the definition of child-directed advertising. No company now uses a threshold higher than 35% child audience (aged 2-11) to define what is mixed programming.

But is this enough?

If there is further political negotiation around this issue later in the year, the threshold could come into the discussion. Campaigners want it reduced further.

The question of large numbers of children viewing advertising via mixed-audience programming has been a matter of debate on both sides of the Atlantic and it will be interesting to see the arguments rehearsed again.

Industry will resist calls to lower the threshold further.  It will say pressure to do so impinges on First Amendment rights and that the ‘adult’-targeted advertising during mixed programming is just that. It is not directed at children, not designed to appeal to them, and therefore is not an issue.

Neither of these arguments really holds water.

CFBAI members have already reduced their thresholds. In so doing they have conceded that even if there are First Amendment rights at issue, they are prepared voluntarily to compromise them for the common good. All they are being asked to do is go a little further.

Such constitutional questions are always about a balance of rights and priorities. First Amendment concerns were raised around the advertising of tobacco which was banned on TV and radio 40 years ago and is increasingly highly controlled through other media, the most recent set of regulations being passed into law last year. Campaigners suggest that, as with tobacco advertising, public health priorities and the need to protect children outweigh concerns over freedom of expression.

The second premise is even shakier. The idea that an advert for McDonald’s aimed ostensibly at the adults watching but featuring the ‘Golden Arches’ is not going to communicate some residual – or to use rather loaded phraseology ‘subliminal’ – message to the children watching is rather fanciful. Even if the primary target is not children, children are still going to recognise and quite possibly be influenced by the images, whether logos, product shots or an iconic brand emblem.

Campaigners maintain the argument should not be about the proportion of audience but the absolute numbers of children watching.  In 2008, UK consumer association Which? published research showing that the top five programmes in terms of size of child audience, defined as under-16, were all mixed family programmes. The first children’s programme in the ranking came in at number six. Dr Poole believes the situation would be similar in the US, pointing out that a high-rating family programme with just a 20% child audience could be watched by every under-12 in the country.

As it looks increasingly likely that the US government may provisionally accept the industry guidelines and defer the introduction of government voluntary standards, campaigners may well focus their efforts on this issue. There are some compelling arguments in their favour.