Focus - Soft drinks advertisers set to feel the Obama effect

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The US government is planning to introduce voluntary guidelines governing the advertising of food and drink to children, while the First Lady will soon be heading her own campaign to fight childhood obesity. The next few months are therefore likely to be more than a little interesting for representatives of the soft drinks industry stateside. Ben Cooper reports.


The proactive stance the Obama administration is taking towards tackling childhood obesity, already seen in the nutritional labelling measures announced by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year, will soon be brought to bear on food and drink advertising to children.

An interagency working group, comprising representatives from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the FDA and the Department of Agriculture, was briefed last year to prepare a report to Congress on the subject. It is scheduled to publish its findings next month for consultation, before the final report is presented to Congress in July.

Soft drinks and food companies already have a good idea of the content of the report, having been given a sneak preview at a forum on children’s food advertising convened by the FTC in December.

The Working Group was directed to develop recommended standards foods would have to meet to be allowed to be marketed to children and determine the scope of the media to which those standards should apply.

The three standards outlined at the forum have set much more exacting limits on food and drink producers than voluntary measures currently in place, so the consultation period will see some vigorous debate between the food and drink lobbies, representatives of the media industry, government and public health experts.

Elaine Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a self-regulatory initiative involving 16 major food and drinks producers created in 2006 under the auspices of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB), is concerned about the “very rigorous” criteria outlined in December and the prohibitions they would impose on manufacturers.

Kolish is hoping that concessions will be made during the consultation period. “As they are currently constructed I think it will have a very serious impact and I think that’s why the [consultation] is so important, so that the issues can be more fully discussed and the standards that they’ve proposed could be evolved.”

The good news for both soft drinks and food manufacturers is that any government intervention stemming from the interagency working group will comprise only voluntary guidelines.

While the FDA measures on front-of-pack nutritional labelling will be mandatory – suggesting the Obama appointees in that department are ready to regulate – the FTC is more restricted on what it can mandate or proscribe in advertising, both by a law introduced in the 1980s and by First Amendment issues of freedom of speech.

Notwithstanding the change of tenor under the Obama administration, the FTC is generally positive about self-regulation, and industry representatives are hopeful that this will continue to influence matters over the coming months.

“We encourage the FTC to look at the voluntary commitments that have been made by the food and beverage industry, and to review the success that has been achieved through self-regulation,” Tracey Halliday, spokesperson for the American Beverage Association (ABA), tells just-drinks.

The slightly worrying precedent for the CFBAI is that when the FDA announced its measures last year, the fledgling industry initiative – the Smart Choices labelling programme – dissolved more or less immediately. However, this appears unlikely to happen to the CFBAI.

Indeed, Kolish believes the initiative could have an enhanced role to play once the official voluntary guidelines are introduced as the “transparency and monitoring mechanism” for the government guidelines. “I think there will be an even more important role for the Initiative, whatever the outcome is, to continue to work to improve nutritional profiles of food advertised to kids,” Kolish says.

Bruce Silverglade of consumer protection campaign group the Center for Science in the Public Interest sees the imposition of the voluntary standards as part of the “sea change” in food policy seen under the Obama administration. But he too sees a role for the CFBAI after the government guidelines are introduced. “There could be a role if they adopted the government guidelines as their own and did some serious arm-twisting to get companies to comply in order to head off the possibility of mandatory regulation.”

Kolish also points out that the CFBAI already has a strong working relationship with the FTC.”They support and applaud self-regulation. They asked BBB to do more in this area in 2005 and that’s in part why this initiative was begun. I don’t think they are thinking about it being dismantled. I think they are hoping it can just evolve.”

Given the generally positive noises made about the CFBAI – in contrast to the criticisms of the Smart Choices programme by the FDA – the portents are fairly good. “They [the FTC] appreciate that self-regulation has moved the needle,” says Kolish. “People may argue whether the needle has moved sufficiently but I think they agree it has moved.”

Halliday adds: “We can’t speculate on the future of the CFBAI or what the final guidelines may be; however, we hope that the FTC will recognise the significant efforts underway by members of the food and beverage industry. Our industry has made clear commitments – and we have kept those commitments.”

The Obama effect is not only likely to be felt in the form of the advertising guidelines. Next month will also see the launch of a childhood obesity campaign by Michelle Obama. The fact that President Obama has a young family is thought to be one of the reasons why the issue of childhood obesity is close to his heart and it quickly became clear that the First Lady also intended to engage actively.

At a speech to the US Conference of Mayors earlier this month, Mrs Obama said the main thrust of the initiative would be “to put in place common-sense initiatives and solutions that empower families and communities to make healthy decisions for their kids.”

The implications for industry should not be too alarming. The initiative is likely to be holistic in nature, involving a wide range of elements including increasing weight management programmes for children, enhancing infrastructures to allow for more walking and cycling, improving access to public recreational facilities and making food in schools more nutritious.

While some onus for reform will be directed to companies, the generally consensual nature of the Obama regime suggests it will not be an industry-bashing exercise, particularly if community investment in areas such as children’s sport continues to be forthcoming from industry.

Nevertheless, the combination of the discussion of the voluntary advertising guidelines and a high-profile campaign backed directly from the White House means the issue of childhood obesity will be extremely prominent in the coming months, and industry advocates are guaranteed a busy time.

Sectors: Soft drinks, Water

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