Markey (D-Mass.) chairs the House Committee on Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, under whose auspices the hearing was conducted.
Witnesses were a mix of marketer and media lobbyists and health, media-freedom and childhood health advocates. It may be a preview of what to expect when the Federal Trade Commission holds its July 18 hearing on advertising aimed at kids. The FCC is also gearing up to run a survey of dozens of beverage and food packagers about how they market to children.
The hearing included civil conversations about violence on TV; censorship of TV content, the ability for local stations and individuals to filter what they receive or broadcast; smoking; and whether the government should mandate what products packaged-goods companies make for the youth market and how they advertise them.
Industry spokespeople spoke up for self-regulation, while advocates for legislative limits said the industry could not effectively police itself.
Witnesses and committee members noted FTC Chair Deborah Platt Majoras' exhortation to industry to develop healthier marketing programs aimed at kids. The FTC is also expected to survey 44 food and drink companies in the coming months about their spending and methods used in advertising to children.
Earlier this month, the Kellogg Co. agreed to adopt nutrition standards for the foods it markets to children, and to place limits on its use of licensed characters and product placements in marketing directed at children.
Last week, Markey fired off letters to The Coca-Cola Co., General Mills, Kraft Foods, McDonald's and PepsiCo, asking each to voluntarily implement those same restrictions on marketing to children.
Walt Disney Co. has already said it will limit marketers' use of its characters to market unhealthy food to kids, and Kraft also stopped advertising products high in fat and sugar to kids. It has launched a line of some 500 products it calls "Sensible Solution."
At Friday's hearing, Jane Harman (D-Calif.) questioned whether advertising for unhealthy foods integrated with healthy messages would have any impact on children. "For example," she said, "When an ad features someone eating French fries and then riding a bike -- what is a child going to learn from that?"
Donald Schifrin, MD, who chairs the committee on communications of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the Academy recommends running a series of focus groups of advertising that pitches both products and healthy lifestyles.
"Industry is devoting huge budgets to this project," he said. "Let's do it right."
Rep. Baron Hill (D-Ind.) said the suggestion of such industry efforts as PSA's are ineffectual given the volume of ads pitched at kids. Hill noted that kids now drink twice as much soda as milk, vs, 20 years ago, when those statistics were reversed.
"These kids are seeing 7,600 of these ads per year," Hill said, "and I think these PSAs are like having an umbrella during the London blitz. Shouldn't there be some limitation per manufacturer of how many ads you can bombard these kids with, particularly for under-8 kids -- about high calorie foods. Shouldn't it be illegal to target under-8 kids? What can we do to limit this?"
Mary Sophos, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufactuers Association, said members of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative would soon unveil "data showing companies' progress in shifting the mix toward advertising and marketing of healthier food and messages."
To which Rep. Hill asked for numeric targets. Sophos said industry, voluntarily, would assure that a minimum of 50% of ads to kids "will be for healthier foods, and deliver healthy messages."
Patti Miller, vice president of advocacy group Children Now, called for a 25% reduction in advertising of unhealthy products to kids starting next year. "Currently, no fruits and vegetables are being advertised to kids," she said. "It's frightening."
Though Markey exhorted voluntary regulation in his letters to marketers last week, he closed the meeting with a threat.
"The First Amendment is precious, but children are just as precious. We need a healthy balance to make sure our children aren't bombarded with these messages," he said. "Most parents are not in the position to control what kids see -- they are both working. While these kids have all these unhealthy choices presented to them in the media, if there is not a proper response from industry, I'm prepared to press the FCC to put on books rules to protect kids from unhealthy messages. FCC has the authority to do that, and I hope the industry responds. The FCC will fulfill the mandate of law."