Guidelines for Marketing Food to Kids Proposed

CSPI Calls for Nutrition Standards and Curbs on TV Advertising, Movie Tie-Ins, School-based Marketing and Other Tactics for Selling Junk Food to Children


The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today released new Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children, which call on food manufacturers, broadcasters, restaurants, movie studios, and schools to reform the way drinks, snacks, fast-food meals, and other foods are marketed to kids. The Guidelines propose curbing certain marketing techniques but unlike the food industry's self-imposed guidelines, CSPI is proposing basic nutritional thresholds for determining which foods should be marketed to kids in the first place. The Guidelines were developed with input from experts from academia, government, and industry.

Each day, children receive about 58 commercial messages from television alone, about half of which are for food. According to CSPI, much of that advertising is for high-calorie or low-nutrition foods and undermines parents' efforts to provide healthful diets for their kids. While a number of factors affect children's food choices, studies show that food marketing attracts kids' attention and affects their food preferences and choices. The amount of marketing aimed at kids has doubled in the last 10 years from $7 billion to $15 billion a year.

"Parents are outgunned by food companies and the toys, cartoon characters, celebrities, and psychological munition that food marketers have at their disposal," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "Parents try to get their kids to eat bananas, broccoli, and whole wheat bread, but those messages get drowned out by marketing for French fries, cookies, and candy. What we're really asking is that marketers act responsibly, and not urge kids to eat foods that could harm their health."

Ideally, says CSPI, only healthful foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain products would be marketed to kids. But CSPI’s Guidelines would allow a much broader range of foods to be marketed to kids, as long as the food in question provides some positive nutritional benefit and isn't too high in saturated and trans fat, salt, or added sugars.

For instance, CSPI's Guidelines call on companies not to market low-nutrition drinks like soda, sports drinks, and sweetened ice tea to kids. Food companies could, though, market:

  • drinks that contain at least 50 percent fruit juice and no added caloric sweeteners;
  • water and seltzer without added caloric sweeteners; and
  • low-fat and fat-free milk, including flavored milks.

The Guidelines call for foods marketed to kids to be in reasonable portion sizes, to provide some basic nutrients, and to have:

  • Less than 30 percent of total calories from fat (excluding fat from nuts, seeds, and peanut or other nut butters);
  • Less than 10 percent of calories from saturated plus trans fat;
  • Less than 25 percent of calories from added sugars; and
  • No more than 150 milligrams (mg) of sodium per serving of snack items; no more than 480 mg per serving for soups, pastas, meats, and main dishes; and no more than 600 mg for meals.

The Guidelines would allow companies to use almost any marketing technique to market healthful foods to kids. But it also calls on companies not to use certain commonly used techniques to market low-nutrition foods to kids, including:

  • Advertising on television shows for which more than a quarter of the audience is children. Foods like Mrs. Butterworth's Little Dunkers, for example, could not be advertised on Nickelodeon's children’s programming.
  • Product or brand placements in media aimed at kids, including movies, television shows, video games, web sites, and books. For instance, Burger King could not pay to place its products in Warner Bros.' Scooby-Doo 2.
  • Licensing agreements or cross-promotions with kid-oriented movies or television programs, or use of cartoon or fictional characters from such programs. Burger King could not use SpongeBob SquarePants to promote burgers and fries, Hostess Twinkies couldn't use Shrek, nor could the movie Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events be used to promote Procter & Gamble's Sunny Delight.
  • Use of curricula, fundraising activities, educational incentives, or other school-based sales or marketing of junk food. The Guidelines would prohibit programs like those used by Pizza Hut and Chuck E. Cheese which use junk food to reward academic achievement.

"No parent would allow a door-to-door salesman to come into the house and spend a few unsupervised minutes with the kids, yet junk-food manufacturers have similar unfettered access to kids' impressionable minds via advertising and marketing," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Food manufacturers like to put all the blame on parents, but these companies go right around parents' backs, directly to kids—and sometimes directly to toddlers—with sales pitches for unhealthful foods."

Over the last 20 years, rates of obesity have doubled in children and tripled in teens. And, since most children's diets are too high in calories, saturated and trans fat, and sodium, one-quarter of kids between the ages of five and 10 have high blood pressure, elevated blood cholesterol levels, or other early warning signs for heart disease. Type 2 diabetes can no longer be called "adult onset" diabetes because of rising rates in children.

The last serious attempt to protect children from junk-food advertising was a quarter-century ago, when the Federal Trade Commission was investigating whether advertising aimed at kids was inherently unfair. Congress, in response to pressure from food manufacturers, broadcasters, and the advertising industry, quashed the FTC's effort to regulate such ads. Since then, advertising aimed at kids has been largely unregulated, but for the industry’s own self-regulatory body, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), a division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. The group is funded by regulated companies, and seeks to "preserve their freedom" to advertise to kids.

Today CSPI sent its Guidelines to officials at major food companies, chain restaurants, television networks, television stations in the 50 largest markets, movie studios, supermarkets, and children's magazines and urged them to comply on a voluntary basis.

"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," Wootan said. "It's time for them to clean up their act."

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