SpongeBob, Junk Food, and the Federal Trade Commission

Limit promotion of some foods marketed to children and create incentives that increase demand for foods that are nutritionally superior.

SpongeBob, Junk Food, and the Federal Trade Commission

Although children’s poor diets and rising childhood obesity rates are affected by many factors, one of the most important is food marketing.

Studies show that food marketing attracts children’s attention, influences their food choices, and prompts them to request that their parents purchase products.

Virtually all of the foods marketed to children are low in nutrients and high in calories, salt, saturated fat, and refined sugars. And those foods are marketed aggressively — children are exposed to twice as much marketing today as they were ten years ago. Parents are at a disadvantage when we try to compete with food companies — we don’t have SpongeBob, sports stars, contests, and the latest market research tools to help us persuade our kids to eat their fruits and vegetables.

The last time that policy makers made any real attempt to address marketing of food to children was in the late 1970s. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)) recommended banning ads aimed at young children, as well as limiting commercials for sugary foods directed at older children and requiring that advertisers of sugary foods fund health messages as a balance to their advertisements. Congress responded by passing a law withdrawing the FTC’s authority to issue industry-wide regulations to combat unfair advertising practices aimed at kids.

As a result, the regulation of food advertising aimed at children is now left largely to occasional FTC enforcement actions and to self-regulation by industries with a financial interest in selling food to children, primarily through the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU).

CARU’s guidelines for children’s advertising include laudable goals. For instance, "Representation of food products should be made so as to encourage sound use of the product with a view toward healthy development of the child and development of good nutritional practices." But the guidelines are vague, and not enforceable beyond a limited complaint procedure and voluntary action by companies. Most important, case-by-case enforcement is not an effective approach. Cases take time to build, and often by the time a case can be brought, an ad campaign has run its course and the company doesn’t mind pulling it. Also, simply changing how a sales pitch is couched doesn’t change the fact that most food ads aimed at children are for low-nutrition foods.

The FTC claims that it’s logistically impossible to limit junk food marketing to children. However, a number of other countries and regions manage to impose limits. Sweden, Norway, Austria, Luxembourg, the Flemish region of Belgium, and Québec have banned television advertising directed at echildren or during children’s programming. Marketing and advertising in schools is prohibited in Belgium, France, Greece, Luxembourg, Portugal, Québec, and Vietnam.

Food manufacturers and advertising agencies argue that parents ultimately decide whether to purchase products. The reality is that marketing aimed at children is extremely difficult for parents, schools, day care centers, and other caregivers to counter. To support parents and protect kids:

  • Constituents should urge Congress to give the FTC the authority to work with the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies to set nutrition standards for foods that can (and can’t) be marketed to children.
  • Concerned citizens should press Congress and state legislatures to fund the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state health departments to sponsor media-based campaigns to balance advertising for low-nutrition foods by promoting healthy eating and physical activity. A good example is the VERB™ campaign of the CDC, which uses paid advertising, public relations, and community events and programs to promote physical activity to middle-school-age youth.
  • Health professionals, parents, elected officials, and organizations should call on food companies, restaurants, supermarkets, TV stations, and children’s magazines to market food to children responsibly. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has developed guidelines that organizations can use or adapt in support of responsible food marketing aimed at children.
  • Communities should advocate that Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state legislatures, and local school districts implement higher nutrition standards for foods sold on campus through vending machines, à la carte, fund-raisers, and similar venues, and increase healthy offerings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (as is called for in school foods bills introduced by Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Lynn Woolsey).
  • Citizens should press federal and state legislators and local school districts to prohibit the marketing of junk food in schools. (Senator Harkin’s HeLP America Act of 2005 would allow the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to limit the advertising of nutritionally poor foods in schools that participate in the national school meal programs.)

Society provides special protections for children, including measures to protect their health, such as requiring use of car safety seats or prohibiting children from buying cigarettes or alcoholic beverages. To help protect children from heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases, we must support parents, whose authority is undermined by the wide discrepancies between what they tell their children is healthful and what marketers promote as desirable to eat. We should limit the promotion of some foods that are now commonly marketed to children. We also should create incentives for companies to develop and increase the demand for foods that are nutritionally better than those that are currently marketed to children.

For far too long, food manufacturers, fast-food restaurants, and media conglomerates have been profiting by pushing obesity- and disease-causing junk foods to kids. It's time for them to clean up their acts.