Eleven of the largest food and drink companies in the United States announced they established and will adhere to new standards for marketing high fat, high sugar foods to children under the age of 12. The announcement came just ahead of the July 18 forum, “Weighing In: A Check-Up on Marketing, Self-Regulation, and Childhood Obesity,” held by the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Health and Human Services.
American University’s Kathryn C. Montgomery, an expert on children and media and online marketing, testified at the forum. She said although the rules are a step in the right direction, it is the first of many steps needed to help turn the tides on the childhood obesity epidemic gripping the nation.
In her testimony, Montgomery said the public, including parents and policy makers, needs to gauge the new rules by three standards:
- The industry needs to expand the rules to apply not just to children, but teens, who often as Montgomery noted, “spend more of their own money on food, make more of their food choices independent of their parents and do more of their food consumption outside of the home.”
- The rules need to address not just television ads, but emerging digital marketing practices including social media Web sites, instant messaging, cell phones, video games and other high-tech modes of communication and entertainment. “With the explosion of digital media, we are witnessing a further expansion of food marketing designed to intrude into every possible ‘touch point’ of a young person’s daily life,” Montgomery said.
- The rules should be strengthened and enforced by new government laws and regulations. “Self-regulation is always reactive,” Montgomery explained. “Adjustments are made to controversial practices in order to placate critics, deflect pressure and preempt government regulation. But when the public spotlight has diverted elsewhere, industry policing may relax. When there is a great deal of money to be made, as there is in the child and teen market, practices are likely to return to business as usual, or new ones created to circumvent public scrutiny.”
Full Statement of Kathryn C. Montgomery
FTC/HHS Forum on Marketing, Self-Regulation, & Childhood Obesity
The public--including policymakers and parents--must assess any new industry promises by at least three critical standards. First, self-regulatory measures must protect all children, including teenagers. We cannot address the nutritional health problems facing America’s young people by narrowly focusing attention only on the youngest segment of the youth population. Adolescents are at even greater risk of consuming an unhealthy diet than younger children.
Teens spend more of their own money on food, make more of their food choices independently of their parents, and do more of their food consumption outside of the home. Food marketers can now target teens through an explosion of new digital venues—including social networking platforms, peer-to-peer video, instant messaging, interactive games, and cell phones—completely bypassing any parental oversight. And because the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) protects only children under the age of 13, adolescents are also subjected to some of the most extensive behavioral marketing in contemporary media.
Secondly, industry guidelines must address the full range of new and emerging digital marketing practices. Marketers know that today's children and teens are increasingly away from TV sets and are part of the "always connected” lifestyle. With the explosion of digital media we are witnessing a further expansion of food marketing, designed to intrude into every possible “touch point” of a young person’s daily life.
Digital technologies enable companies to track every move, online and off, compiling elaborate personal profiles, and aggregating that data across different media and over time. Such an environment makes it very difficult for children to maintain health. Unless the industry promises to halt the intrusive "one-to-one" marketing of unhealthy foods, we will never be able to effectively address the serious obesity crisis facing America’s children and adolescents.
Finally, while the food and advertising industries deserve praise for any new steps they take today, these announcements are coming at a time of unprecedented intense legal and political pressure brought by health advocates, regulatory agencies, and Congressional members from both parties.
As we’ve seen repeatedly in the past, self-regulation is always reactive. Adjustments are made to certain controversial practices in order to placate critics, deflect pressure, and preempt government regulation. But when pressures have subsided, and the public spotlight has been diverted elsewhere, industry policing may be relaxed. When there is a great deal of money to be made, as there is in the children and teen market, practices are likely to return to business as usual, or new ones created to circumvent public scrutiny. Industry guidelines will only work if there are government laws and regulations enacted to enforce them.
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