Most Food & Entertainment Companies Get Failing Grade for Policies on Marketing Food to Children

Few Have Any Policies in Place at All, According to CSPI Report Card


WASHINGTON—Most food and entertainment companies have received Fs from the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, which today issued a report card that rates 128 companies’ policies with regard to food marketing aimed at children. Three-quarters of companies are getting an F, either for having weak policies or for failing to have any policies whatsoever.

CSPI's highest grade, a B+, went to Mars, Inc., though the group emphasized that the grade is not for the foods Mars sells, but rather for its policy on marketing to children. Mars' policy excludesmarketing to children under 12 and covers most of the key marketing tactics used to reach children. The entertainment company given CSPI’s highest grade, a B, is Qubo, a family-friendly children's television channel delivered nationwide over ION Media Networks 59 local digital television stations. Qubo’s policy is comprehensive, applying reasonably good nutrition standards to its full range of programming, according to CSPI.

One food company (Procter & Gamble, which makes Pringles) received a B, six got a B-, 17 got a C, and 7 a D. Ninety-five companies received an F.

The Most Disappointing Toy Ever? At first glance it resembles the classic Easy Bake, but the Chuck E. Cheese's® EZ-2 Make!™ Pizza Maker doesn't even have a heating element; it’s just a cheap plastic shell.

Photo Credit: Jeff Cronin

"Despite the industry's self-regulatory system, the vast majority of food and entertainment companies have no protections in place for children," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "If companies were marketing bananas and broccoli, we wouldn’t be concerned. But instead, most of the marketing is for sugary cereals, fast food, snack foods, and candy. And this junk food marketing is a major contributor to childhood obesity."

According to the Institute of Medicine, TV commercials affect children's food choices, food purchase requests, diets, and health. And the mere act of watching commercial television is linked to obesity

CSPI gave restaurant chain Denny's an F for marketing to children through its children's menu, which includes many nutritionally poor items; games on its Web site; and a kid's birthday club. Lucasfilms received an F for not having a policy. Presently, Lucasfilms is licensing Star Wars toys as a premium to go with McDonald's Happy Meals, many of which are nutritionally poor. Candy company Topps also got an F. That company makes, among other things, Baby Bottle Pop, a powdered candy sold in a miniature baby bottle, eaten by dipping a candy nipple in a sugary powder and licking it off. Over the years Topps has retained the services of the Jonas Brothers and Clique Girlz singing groups to convince children to purchase that infantilizing product, whose 140 calories all come from sugar.

Companies spend about $2 billion each year marketing foods and beverages to children. Food manufacturers and restaurants more often had policies for television, radio, print, Internet, and product placement than for digital marketing, like cell phones, iPods, and social networks, characters, games, and contests on food packages, toy give-aways with children's meals at fast-food restaurants, or branded marketing programs for schools. Half of the entertainment companies with policies, like the Cartoon Network, apply nutrition standards to the licensing of their characters, but few have policies for their television advertising or Web site, which are the primary ways they market to children.

In 2006, the Council of Better Business Bureaus announced a self-regulatory program called the Childrens Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Sixteen major food and restaurant companies, representing about 80 percent of television food advertising expenditures, have joined the program and announced that they will not market foods to children under 12 that don’t meet companies’ individual nutritional standards. But those standards often are carefully tailored and still allow a considerable volume of junk-food advertising to reach young kids, according to CSPI. The group's analysis of advertising on Nickelodeon, conducted in November, found that 80 percent of food ads on the popular children's network were for junk food.

While 64 percent of food manufacturers that advertise to children have marketing policies, only 24 percent of restaurants and 22 percent of entertainment companies do. For Qubo’s part, the company says its nutrition policy reinforces an overall message about healthy living and providing children with the foundations for self-esteem that the company promotes in popular kids’ programs such as Turbo Dogs, Willa's Wild Life and Babar.

"Shortly after the launch of the Qubo kids' channel in 2007, we established very stringent nutritional guidelines for advertising only healthy foods to children," said Brandon Burgess, chairman and CEO of ION Media Networks, the parent company of the Qubo Channel. "We were responding to the alarming increase in childhood obesity and the seminal work established by the FCC's Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity. Then and now, we were happy to work with policymakers, CSPI, and our industry colleagues to fight childhood obesity and provide children with important educational building blocks in making healthy lifestyle choices."

In the next few weeks, the Federal Trade Commission together with other federal agencies is expected to propose a set of nutrition criteria and other standards for foods marketed to children that, when finalized in July, the agency hopes companies will adopt on a voluntary basis.

"If food, toy, and media companies fail to adopt those voluntary standards, they will be clanging the death knell for their self-regulatory initiative and inviting strong government involvement in food marketing aimed at kids," Wootan said.

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