- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Marketing strategies that feature SpongeBob SquarePants or use the latest adventure game for PlayStation to sell junk food to children will face increased scrutiny from the federal government next year.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is preparing to collect information from the parent companies of fast-food restaurants and beverage manufacturers for detailed information on their marketing activities and spending targeted at children.

The informational requests will go out to about 50 companies, which are required by law to respond.

The companies are not identified, but those likely to receive the requests sell or make children’s food products such as breakfast cereals, snack foods and sodas. The information the FTC receives will be used for a report that will examine the different types of advertising tactics, such as the use of popular children’s characters or video games, for children’s food products.

The report is the latest effort in a broad push to limit the food industry’s marketing and labeling of its products. Last month, former President Bill Clinton struck a deal with major snack-food manufacturers to sell healthier snack foods to students.

Some companies, such as Kraft Foods, already have scaled back their advertising to children, potentially to avoid the growing number of lawsuits against companies for selling unhealthy foods. Kraft has set national standards for products it will market to children ages 6 to 11 and will not advertise to those younger than 6. The Walt Disney Co. has recently established standards for the type of food products its characters may be used to advertise.

In addition to the FTC report, the Federal Communication Commission and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, are creating a task force of government officials, television programmers and marketers to study the media’s impact on childhood obesity next year.

Many observers are comparing the movement toward healthier snacks and oversight of marketing practices to the lawsuit against tobacco companies in the mid-1990s.

“Like the tobacco [issue], there is a steady increase of attention being given to healthy food products. As a result, there will be more self-regulation, but to what extent the government gets involved will depend on the public’s attitude toward these companies and medical studies that show the effects of childhood obesity,” said Ron Urbach, a lawyer with Davis & Gilbert and co-chairman of the advertising, marketing and promotions department at the law firm.

The rate of obesity in children and adolescents has more than tripled from less than 5 percent in the 1980s to about 16 percent today, according to federal data. Critics of the food industry’s marketing practices say commercials and Internet ads, on which the industry spent an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion last year, aggressively target children.

“Our nation is confronted with a childhood-obesity epidemic that is getting worse,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, who ordered the FTC to look into the issue. “We must take steps to protect our children’s health. Parents are being undermined by the junk-food culture that is increasingly promoted to our kids on TV.”

Lawyers monitoring the issue are concerned the FTC’s increased vigilance on marketing toward children could lead to enforcement.

“When the federal government starts looking for and getting marketing information, they begin to learn about different forms of advertising and might want to make a statement,” said Tony DiResta, an FTC regulatory specialist at the Washington law firm Reed Smith. “Enforcement action for deceptive advertising is a possibility.”

But if history is a guide, the FTC may urge companies to “self-regulate” themselves rather than take up the lengthy process of issuing new regulations restricting the type of advertising companies can direct toward children.

“In the middle 1990s when the FTC was going after violence of TV, they decided it would be more effective for companies to self-regulate,” Mr. Urbach said. “Taking a self-regulating path is more effective because government regulations take so long, by the time they are in place, the issues are different.”

New guidelines for marketers of children’s food products from the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, a unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, are being revised after the group announced in February that it would conduct a complete review of the existing guidelines.

The new guidelines may go beyond their current focus of protecting children’s privacy and preventing youths from seeing messages intended for adults to adding minimum nutrition standards or restrictions on targeting children with promotions for unhealthy food.

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