Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, wrote a letter to the FCC this week that encouraged the commission to be more aggressive in its efforts to regulate the advertising of unhealthy foods to children.
But an ad industry spokesman contends that Markey is relying on old data and is not taking into account the steps the ad industry has taken in recent years to combat obesity in its TV spots.
Markey has long been an advocate for regulating the messages and images that broadcasters send to children. Ten years ago, he sponsored an amendment to the Children's Television Act (CTA) that required broadcasters to add at least three hours of educational shows to their weekly programming schedules. Now, he says, that act gives the FCC the authority it needs to restrict ads for candy, snacks, sugary sodas and other junk food.
In his letter, Markey asserted that CTA provisions say that the FCC "may, after notice and public comment and a demonstration of the need for modification of such limitations (the three-hour requirement), modify such limitations in accordance with the public interest" - giving the commission the power to regulate food ads targeting children.
"The goal behind the CTA and the implementing regulations was to provide a 'safe space' wherein children could watch wholesome, kid-friendly fare," Markey's letter continued. "Inundating children with advertisements for fast food, junk food and sugared cereals in this core educational 'safe space'-which constitutes a mere three hours of a broadcasters' total airtime each week-would seem to send kids mixed messages."
Markey added that the FCC already has the legal authority to apply "common sense restrictions" on food advertising during children's TV shows.
But Dan Jaffe, EVP of the Association of National Advertisers, counters that Markey's position "totally ignores the initiatives launched by The Food Initiative -- 11 companies that have banded together, and who do two thirds of all the advertising aimed at children. That group has pledged that half of all their advertising will either be for low-calorie foods or will be healthy-lifestyle advertising."
Jaffe also suggests that Markey is relying too heavily on data compiled in 2005 by the Kaiser Family Foundation. "He's looking at data from 2005 and trying to make policy based on it in 2007," opines Jaffe. "Since then, this is an area where the advertising community has taken the lead."
Jaffe adds that "no other community has done near what the advertising community has done to combat the obesity problem. The industry has responded to these concerns by launching a multimillion-dollar initiative touting low-fat and low-calorie foods."
A task force, headed by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and FCC commissioner Deborah Tate, has been formed to examine Markey's proposal and assess the ad industry's actions. Also serving on the commission are members of public health agencies and the broadcast and food and beverage industries. The task force is expected to complete its report this summer.