The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a voluntary self-regulation program, includes 10 of the largest food and beverage companies as charter participants: Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, McDonald's, PepsiCo, and Unilever.
Together, it is estimated, these companies account for more than two-thirds of children's food and beverage television advertising expenditures.
On Tuesday, the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) introduced the initiative and revisions to 32-year-old self-regulatory guidelines regarding advertising to children under 12, which drew faint praise and harsh criticism from interested observers.
The move comes after a nine-month review of ad rules by the CBBB's Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU), the main industry regulator for children's marketers. The thrust of the initiative is to "shift the mix of advertising messaging to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles."
Among the commitments marketers are pledging to make in the next nine months:
"While the [CBBB] labored like an elephant, it came forth with a mouse," stated the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "In fact, these new guidelines are something of a retreat, in that they fall far short of what several companies, notably Kraft and Disney, are already doing. ... CARU and CBBB should scrap this initiative and start from scratch."
Yet Steven Cole, CBBB president/CEO, emphasized the accountability factor. "Self-regulation works best when backed by strong and effective accountability," he said. "We will closely monitor adherence to the participant commitments. This program is an excellent example of how voluntary self-regulation and the BBB advance marketplace trust."
Meanwhile, Commercial Alert, a nonprofit public health and consumer group, said: "Self-regulation is just another word for letting the fox regulate the chicken coop, which of course leads to dead chickens. [It] has been a key ingredient in the childhood obesity epidemic. It is the problem, not the solution."
The "food fight," as the Association of National Advertisers' Dan Jaffe has called it, boils down to "the most serious attack on children's marketing we've seen since the late 1970s." Revisions of CARU guidelines are the first since they were established in 1974. In his blog, Jaffe has also credited the advertising and food industries for having accepted the 2001 Surgeon General's challenge to attack childhood obesity. "No other segment of society has stepped up to the plate with a commensurate effort. Where are the new bike paths or playgrounds so children can get more exercise? If obesity is a national crisis, why have physical education programs been cut in the schools?" he wrote in late September.
Several questions at Tuesday's announcement conference, attended by representatives from General Mills and Kellogg, centered on pre-sweetened cereals.
Lee Peele, executive vice president of advertising and self-regulation at CBBB and president/CEO of NARC, will lead the initiative, and encouraged observers to see a glass half full.
"This will bring together government and scientific studies and 'better for you' products, and the public will know that criteria [on which they are based]," Peele said, emphasizing the initiative's transparent nature. "It will allow for innovation ... and a range of responses."
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who is likely to become chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and has been at the forefront of criticism of food marketing to children, said that "if employed successfully, [the initiative] could be a good first step.
"But the program leaves companies significant leeway to continue marketing unhealthy foods to kids. And, ultimately, the new initiative is only as good as the enforcement."