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Weak New Voluntary Guidelines on Advertising to Kids Designed to Protect Marketers, Not Parents and Families

Statement of CSPI Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson

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Any junk food advertiser who feared that a rewrite of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s voluntary guidelines would force a significant change in the way companies do business can rest easy. While the Council of Better Business Bureaus labored like an elephant, it came forth with a mouse. Regrettably but not surprisingly, advertisers are more interested in preserving what it candidly calls their “freedom to direct their messages to young children” than helping busy parents keep their children healthy.

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. Of course they fall much further short of what the Institute of Medicine urged last year. IOM found that kids’ dietary patterns are putting their health at risk, and that those patterns are encouraged and reinforced by the industry’s marketing practices. The IOM called for leadership from the industry, and failing that, congressional action to protect kids’ health. But this announcement today by CARU isn’t leadership; it’s just the advertising industry playing defense.

The only changes from the status quo in these guidelines occur at the fringes. Still, the overwhelming majority of food advertised at kids is going to be junk food. These foods can be as high in calories, trans fat, sugar, or sodium and as low in nutrients as companies please. The industry’s definition of “healthy” includes sugary breakfast cereals, for instance. If a “healthy lifestyle message” means that Ronald McDonald is pedaling a bike while peddling junk food, that message still does more harm than good. It’s a joke.

CARU and CBBB should scrap this initiative and start from scratch. I hope that next year, leaders in Congress take a fresh look at the industry’s practices. In the meantime, junk food marketers should expect more lawsuits—not praise—from health advocates.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).