Tug of War in Food
Marketing to Children
The New York Times
THE Federal Trade Commission issued a report Tuesday
detailing the pervasiveness of food marketing to
children, and a coalition of food companies responded
with its own report arguing they had made progress on
the issue by self-policing.
The F.T.C.’s report was conducted as part of a
Congressional inquiry into rising childhood obesity
rates. It found that food companies had spent $1.6
billion to market their products to children and
teenagers in 2006.
Makers of carbonated beverages spent the most on
marketing to children and teenagers, followed by
fast-food restaurants and producers of breakfast
cereals. And the major advertising platform was
The food companies’ report, also released Tuesday,
detailed the progress made by a coalition of 14 major
food companies, including Coca-Cola and Kellogg, that
was formed in 2006 to fend off government regulation.
Members of the coalition, called the Children’s Food and
Beverage Advertising Initiative and run by the Council
of Better Business Bureaus, pledge either to stop aiming
ads at children or to promote only what the council
calls “better-for-you products” in ads directed at
The F.T.C. seemed to applaud the progress that the
coalition had made. “The committee’s primary
recommendation is all food and beverage companies adopt
and adhere to” nutritional standards for products
marketed to children, said Lydia Parnes, director of the
agency’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, at a news
conference in Washington. She said that joining the
coalition would be “a useful first step” for companies.
But critics of the self-regulatory approach said they
were troubled by the lack of industrywide definitions on
what advertising to children entailed and on what
“better” food meant.
“In the Better Business Bureau program, the companies
themselves determine what is better food, the companies
themselves determine what is children’s advertising. The
companies determine all these things; there’s not even a
real uniformity in what these decisions are,” said
Robert Kesten, the executive director of the Center for
Screen-Time Awareness, a Washington-based group that
aims to limit media influence.
The business bureau’s report showed that companies’
pledges had resulted in slight modifications to the
products they sell to children and how they sell those
The Campbell Soup Company, for example, has stopped
featuring Chicken Noodle Soup on its Web sites directed
at children. Chicken and Stars, Healthy Request Chicken
Noodle and reduced-sodium Chicken Noodle, all of which
meet Campbell’s nutritional standards for children, can
be featured, however.
Cadbury Adams has stopped marketing Bubblicious gum to
children, said a spokeswoman, Luisa Girotto.
Kellogg’s has reformulated several products, including
the cold cereals Apple Jacks, Froot Loops and Corn Pops,
so that they meet the company’s declared nutrition
requirements for children, a Kellogg’s spokeswoman said.
And Burger King started offering a new Kids Meal,
featuring macaroni and cheese, that meets its
nutritional criteria. (Its children’s menu continues to
feature a double hamburger, however, with 420 calories
and 22 grams of fat.)
The business bureau’s report covered changes made in the
last half of 2007. The timeline for meeting the pledges
varied. Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, Hershey, Kraft Foods,
Mars and Unilever were to put their programs fully into
effect by the last half of 2007, while Burger King,
Cadbury Adams, General Mills, Kellogg, McDonald’s, and
PepsiCo will only start adopting their programs in that
period. ConAgra Foods and Nestlé only recently joined
The F.T.C. report was based on internal data from 2006
that 44 food and drink companies and fast-food
restaurants were ordered to provide.
Among the findings: About $870 million in marketing
spending was directed at children under 12, while $1
billion was directed at teenagers (those figures include
$300 million worth of marketing that was aimed at both
Still, the agency’s estimate of $1.6 billion being spent
on marketing to children and teenagers was far below
where other estimates had been, notably the $10 billion
figure that the Institute of Medicine has been using.
(The F.T.C. said it excluded nonfood marketing and
advertising that it did not see as aimed at children,
Because the companies’ efforts did not get under way
until 2007, none of the shifts the report detailed were
reflected in the agency’s numbers.
In the report issued by the business bureau, companies’
commitments vary widely.
Each company defined for itself what “better for you”
meant. Kraft has decided its crackers have to have fewer
than 100 calories and 290 milligrams of sodium in a
serving, while ConAgra said its canned pasta had to have
fewer than 350 calories and 750 milligrams of sodium.
The companies were also able to define for themselves
what advertising directed at children meant. Coca-Cola
and Cadbury Adams, for example, consider a commercial
whose audience is composed 50 percent or more of
children under 12 to be marketing to children. Mars’s
definition is stricter: a children’s audience is one
that is composed 25 percent or more of children under
The bureau gave some examples of companies faltering.
Campbell and Unilever, for example, had promised to
advertise only better-for-you products to children. But
both had neglected to remove products on Web sites aimed
at children that did not meet their nutrition
guidelines. Both companies have since fixed the problem,
the bureau said.
Elaine D. Kolish, the director of the companies’ effort,
said the different standards were reasonable.
“This is self-regulation to begin with and we think that
this marketplace, competition-driven approach actually
is really good for consumers and for children under 12,”
she said. “This way, more companies can participate
because they have some flexibility in setting the
standards that takes into account what kind of foods
Of course, even if companies do cut down on their
marketing to children, it does not mean that children
will stop seeing the advertisements or eating the
Prime-time programming generally does not meet any of
the companies’ criteria for child-focused programming,
but more than two million children regularly watch
“American Idol,” for example, where Coca-Cola is a major
sponsor. (“ ‘American Idol’ is family entertainment. It
is not programming primarily directed at children under
12,” a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Diana Garza Ciarlante,
said in an e-mail message.)
And one easy solution for companies is to take products
that have been marketed to children and start marketing
them to mothers.
Kellogg’s has been trying to reformulate its Pop-Tarts,
for example, but has not succeeded in creating a
better-for-you version. By the end of the year, “if we
can’t do it, we will shift the target for that product
to adults, whether it’s moms or whomever makes sense,”
said a Kellogg’s spokeswoman, Kris Charles.
That is unlikely to satisfy critics.
“It’s the marketing industry policing itself, and as is
shown over and over and over again, that’s problematic,”
said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a