Food For Thought -- Or Feeding Frenzy?

No one who has paid the slightest attention to the issue over the past couple of years can possibly be surprised by the FTC's announcement that this summer food and beverage companies will be receiving formal demands for details of their advertising and marketing strategies as they pertain to children.

FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras has been widely quoted as saying the motivation for this exercise is to "get a more complete picture of marketing techniques for which publicly available data have so far been lacking." So, although TV is clearly going to be a major focus by virtue of the spend it attracts from food marketers and its reach among children, everything else is up for grabs as well.

At a time when the digital media's convergence opportunities to extend association with content are increasing, the implications of this investigation are greater than ever before.

Clearly the issues which have already been addressed in other countries -- and resulted in tight advertising restrictions in some -- are now going to be more systematically addressed here. The clear inference from Majoras' statement is that cooperation to date has been deemed insufficient for the FTC to reach a conclusion, so now cooperation will be compulsory.

No doubt there will be knee-jerk reactions both in favor of and against this move. Which is a shame, as knee-jerk reactions are not remotely useful to reaching a reasoned and sustainable end point -- and are often responsible for undermining what merit there is in any kind of regulation.

In the spirit of full disclosure I should make clear my position. I don't hold a dogmatic view on regulation per se. There is both good and bad regulation, but regulation, in and of itself, is neither. On the matter of marketing to children, I tend toward the view that ultimately parents are responsible for what their children eat and drink, to the extent that they do so when together (and ideally parents exert healthy influences to provide a backdrop against which kids can make their own decisions).

On the other hand, I am not wholly against regulation that supports this parental task (onerous and difficult as it so often is). The spiraling costs due to increases in conditions such as childhood obesity and diabetes cannot be laid solely at the doors of the food and beverage industries; but to deny they have any role -- for good or bad -- is plainly ludicrous. If this were the case, I very much doubt we would have seen such investment in health and wellness divisions within these sectors in recent years.

Personally I would not object to some intelligent and well-informed degree of regulation (and while we're at, it maybe we should be taking a closer look at what's in some food and drink products -- it's the flip side of the quantities discussion). But the key phrase is "intelligent and well-informed."

Where regulation too often falls down, is when it is overly influenced by lobby groups championing the cause of one side or another in an argument. Too often this is how regulation that is of both commercial and social significance is shaped. Vested interests from industry and the shrill voices of pressure groups representing vocal but often ill-defined (and small) sections of society almost always ensure that we end up with one-sided or merely toothless results.

I strongly suspect that this is how this particular issue will proceed. It's the Washington way after all, and it supports a whole infrastructure of lobbyists and politicos.

But when we are looking at such a wide range of media, communications and marketing vehicles, how on earth is this cast of usual suspects meant to reach meaningful decisions? Surely intelligent conclusions to this debate can only be based on an analysis of the relative and combined impact of marketing campaigns using some or all of the available communications channels.

At a time when some of the best minds in the communications industries are struggling to come to terms with such questions (and finding it a pretty tough challenge), how then will a group of lawyers, politicians, political activists and lobbyists resolve this issue?

I would like to think that the next stage of the FTC's initiative will include a reference to the use of objective communications theorists and researchers to help inform the decision-making process, and that this will result in consultation with parties with vested interests -- but not the domination of the discussion. In this way we might be able to avoid the usual feeding frenzy around the issue and create some real food for thoughtful influence of a subject that affects us all as parents, and many of us as professionals.

After all, in the fullness of time, it is almost inevitable that there will be some sort of regulatory framework put in place around the food and beverage categories (whether popular or not). Maybe not for a while -- but sooner or later, it will happen. And the media industry should not resist it. While the first reaction may be that regulation will result in the erosion of sector revenues, it does make the rules official -- which in turn gives a degree of sanctuary from the periodic broadsides fired off by the single-issue pressure groups.

Regrettably, I suspect things will go the usual way unless the communications industries weigh in and raise the level of the debate. I'd love to be wrong and see some communications regulation based on how communications actually work, but that's probably too much to hope for.

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