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Children's Food Marketing Moves Into the Political Arena 

Government efforts to restrict food marketing to children presents one of the most intense threats to the advertising industry it has faced in many years. Most importantly, the discussion of the “voluntary” guidelines proposed by the government’s Interagency Working Group for the advertising of food to children has now moved front and center into the political arena and onto the media debate circuit.

The debate in no longer confined to the policy arena but has become a very visible part of the 2012 election milieu, a change which could have significant effects on its outcome and on consumer attitudes about advertising in general. The recent Congressional hearing, “Food Marketing: Can ‘Voluntary’ Government Restrictions Improve Children’s Health?” is a good example of the new tone of the debate.

4A’s Actions

The 4A’s and other groups have mounted an aggressive program to educate policymakers about the adverse effects of the Working Group’s proposals on consumers and to the economy. As a founding member of the Sensible Food Policy Coalition, representatives of the 4A’s Washington office have been meeting with key Members of Congress, top staff of the regulatory agencies, and other consumer and food groups.

The Coalition also has supported a far-ranging education campaign about the adverse effects of the proposed guidelines through the media and other initiatives.

The industry has an important story to tell. The food manufacturers and marketers’ own actions in improving nutritional values in foods marketed to children and reworking their advertising efforts have greatly contributed to global efforts to fight children’s obesity.

There appears to have been significant progress in modifying the proposals, as evidenced by the testimony of David Vladeck, head of the Bureau of Consumer Protection of the FTC before the Congressional hearing.

The Working Group signaled that it intends to abandon its efforts to expand the ages covered by the proposals from 18 and under to 11 and under. Mr. Vladeck also reported that the Working Group would likely remove the proposal to ban brand icons, such as familiar cartoon characters, on foods that don’t meet guidelines.

While the Coalition endorses these potential changes, the overall effect of the guidelines still would significantly restrict much of the food advertising of children’s products. Nor does the “voluntary” nature of the guidelines protect our clients. The hearing testimony by Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers made that point clearly.

With the modification of a number of the marketing restrictions, the debate seems to be shifting toward the nutritional content of food, a thorny and difficult issue. The question becomes: Should the government have the power to designate “good” and “bad” foods and to dictate the content and marketing of certain products.

Please contact Dick O’Brien in the 4A’s Washington office,, if you have further questions or need more information.

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