On both sides of the Atlantic, pressure is mounting against the advertising of products of questionable nutritional value to children. Food and beverage manufacturers clearly favour self-imposed limitations, but increasing documentation linking obesity to environmental issues is causing governments across the world to take action. The implications for CPG companies targeting children are enormous.

A new report published this week by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in the US, provides a detailed look at the volume and variety of marketing techniques that food marketers have used over the past few years when targeting children. The conclusion of the report is that food marketing aimed at children has evolved into a practice that undermines parental authority and helps fuel the epidemic of childhood obesity.

"Parents are fighting a losing battle against food manufacturers and fast-food restaurants, which use aggressive and sophisticated techniques to get into children's heads and prompt them to pester their parents to purchase the company's products," said Margo G Wootan, director of nutrition policy at CSPI and the report's author.

In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), an independent government agency set up in 2000, is considering similar issues. In September 2003, the FSA published research that concluded advertising to children does have an effect on children's food preferences, purchase behavior and consumption. It went on to say that these effects occur not just at brand level, but also for different types of foods.

As a result, the FSA is preparing to collate, debate and present obesity recommendations to the government next year. Among other things, it is considering banning the use of cartoon characters or children's TV stars in adverts aimed at children as well as a ban on food advertisements aimed at pre-school-age children.

Both the US and UK governments are coming under increasing pressure to address the issue of TV advertising and marketing to children, perhaps by limiting permissible advertising scope, as Sweden has done for over a decade. For many manufacturers, if not all, self-regulation is the preferred route. However, the increasing number of studies highlighting the negative effects of advertising to children, particularly with respect to the hot topic of obesity, point to eventual government intervention.