Web Exclusive | May 2011 | By Mary Avant

In the Crosshairs: Kids’ Marketing

The demand for regulating quick serves' marketing to kids is growing.

Congress is encouraging the foodservice industry to self-regulate its marketing to kids, asking the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)—along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Department of Agriculture—to create a list of kids’ marketing principles.

The new guidelines, which were announced April 28 and will be finalized in July, say that advertising should encourage healthier food choices, while minimizing the marketing of harmful food elements.

On the heels of this announcement, Value the Meal, a national initiative launched on May 18 by health professionals and institutions, took out full-page ads in newspapers like The San Francisco Examiner and The Chicago Sun Times. The ads feature an open letter signed by more than 600 health professionals around the country calling on burger giant McDonald’s to halt kid’s marketing.

“We cannot wait for an act of Congress—or another city ordinance or another child to develop diabetes—to stop treating the next generation like a dollar sign,” says Esther Sciammarella, executive director of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition and a member of the Value the Meal initiative.

While some see regulation of marketing to kids as a government encroachment on free choice, others see it as a potential fix to the childhood obesity epidemic. Almost 17 percent of children in America—12.5 million kids—are obese, according to the CDC.

“Food promoted to kids should make a meaningful contribution to their diet, in addition to being limited in fat, sugar, and sodium,” says Carol Jennings, an attorney with the division of advertising practices for the FTC.

“What we are proposing is really guidance for industry self-regulation to encourage more uniform principles to be applied and, in some cases, more stringent principles to be applied,” Jennings says.

In other words, these principles have no legal force behind them. Rather, the foodservice industry is simply encouraged to adopt them.

Jennings says she thinks restaurants will get on board with the guidelines, noting that McDonald’s and Burger King have already joined the Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a Better Business Bureau effort to achieve self-regulation by companies marketing food to children.

Almost 17 percent of children in America—12.5 million kids—are obese, according to the CDC.

“In joining the initiative, those restaurants have made a pledge to limit the food that they promote to children to [options] meeting certain nutritional criteria,” Jennings says.

Some marketing experts, however, are skeptical of the push to change restaurants’ advertising campaigns.

“[Restaurants] could do this if they wanted to,” says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. “The question is, are they really serious about wanting to improve the nutritional quality of what people buy at their restaurants?”

Harris says that quick serves’ habit of using interactive websites can be a danger to kids’ health, something that she thinks should be addressed in the FTC’s guidelines. McDonald’s and Burger King, among many other fast food franchises, have kid-centric websites (www.McWorld.com and www.ClubBK.com, respectively) on which kids can play games and interact with the brand.

“Children spend a lot of time on those sites, so it’s not like a TV ad where the ad is 15 or 30 seconds,” Harris says. “Children sit down to play games and they’re immersed in messages about the brand for as long as they want to stay on the website, and a lot of times they stay 15 or 20 minutes a sitting.”

Harris says these websites are designed to encourage visits to the restaurant, where kids often buy unhealthy foods.

Still, some quick serves are already finding success in health-minded marketing campaigns for kids.

“Our product is considered a healthier choice,” says Amit Kleinberger, CEO of Menchie’s, whose frozen yogurt products are high in calcium, protein, and probiotics. “So just by the virtue of being that, we feel that we are doing a service to the community by educating, propelling, and encouraging consumption of a healthier choice.”

Menchie’s recently launched its mySmileage program, which includes an interactive online world in which children can meet and play with Menchie, the company’s mascot, and his friends.

While the FTC’s principles are a good step toward helping kids eat healthier at restaurants, Harris says, she’s worried fast food companies will ignore them.

“Outside pressure is needed to get them to [change],” she says. “Parents will have to get angry about it and stop visiting the restaurants if they don’t improve their practices, or the government might have to set stronger requirements.”