Food Marketing to Children: FTC Report Paints a Positive Picture But There is Still Room for Improvement

One of the reasons why many parents strictly regulate their kids' TV time is because of the advertising that the kids see on TV. A majority of the TV ads are about food, and they typically do not include the healthiest food choices. In the country where obesity among children has reached an alarming peak, watching TV is like gaining extra calories. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 18.8% of American children ages 6-11 were obese in 2003-2004, as compared to only 4% in 1971-1974. It is scary to imagine what the obesity rates are right now, in 2013. But it seems that nowadays the food and beverage industry is taking steps to remedy the situation by providing and marketing healthier food choices. On December 20, 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (the "FTC") released a report titled "A Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: Follow-Up Report," where it identified certain positive trends. This is their second report on the same topic, and is based on the 2009 data (as compared to the first report that was based on the 2006 data).

According to the Report, total spending on food marketing to youth dropped 19.5% in 2009, to $1.79 billion. This, of course, still seems like an extraordinarily big figure. There has been a big shift in the placement of youth-directed food advertising. Spending on TV advertising fell 19.5%, while spending on new media, such as online and viral marketing, increased by 50%! This means that parents need to closely monitor not only their kids' TV time, but also their online exposure to food ads. And there is a good reason for it. Incredibly, in 2009, 72% of the total food advertising money was spent on fast foods, carbonated beverages and breakfast cereals. So, the rest of the food (such as veggies, healthy snacks, fish, meats, eggs, yogurts, milk, beans, etc.) all together got marketed with only 28% of the revenue, which seems unevenly low. Looking at the bright side, drinks marketed to children and teens were slightly lower in calories in 2009 than in 2006 (although they still averaged more than 20 grams of added sugar per serving!). Also, fast food marketed to children and teens was lower in calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat in 2009, compared to 2006. Actually, kid's meals in fast food restaurants were more nutritious than other meals and main dishes directed to children ages 2-11. Additionally, marketing to children of cereals with 13 g of sugar or more per serving was eliminated.

I cast my hopes on the self-regulatory efforts of the food and beverage industry. The industry has made a lot of progress in the last several years in terms of marketing healthier products to kids primarily in response to First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign and the FTC's earlier report on the same issue. Self-regulatory initiatives are mainly spearheaded by organizations such as the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (the "CFBAI") and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. The CFBAI has recently experienced an increase in membership, so now all, or nearly all, children's marketing in many food categories is covered by their program that aims to introduce further improvements in the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children. Current members include the giants of the food and beverage industry, such as Burger King Corp., Campbell Soup Company, The Coca-Cola Company, Kraft Foods Gorup, Inc., Mars, Inc., McDonald's USA, ConAgra Foods, Inc., The Dannon Company, General Mills, Inc., Nestle USA, PepsiCo, Inc., Post Foods, LLC, The Hershey Company, Kellogg Company, Hollshire Brands, Unilever United States.

Perhaps, what we really need to change is not which foods and drinks are advertised to our kids but the overall quality of food that is produced and consumed in the United States. Changing our consumer preferences away from the fast foods, carbonated beverages and sugary cereals and towards healthier choices may prompt the food and beverage industry to advertise healthy foods to us and our children. After all, the law of economics says that it is the consumer demand that determines the supply.

Read more commentary from Arina Shulga on the legal aspects of operating new and growing businesses at Business Law Post.

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