Blog: US FTC report treads lightly on child food marketing

Chris Mercer | 4 January 2013

The US Federal Trade Commission continues to have little appetite for a fight with food companies over marketing to children, judging by its new report.

The Commission (FTC) ripped open a fresh sack of carrots to mark its first major update on marketing food to children and adolescents since 2008.  

There has been "commendable progress" by industry to reduce marketing of high-fat, salt and sugar foods to young people, says the US government body. Among the 44 companies assessed by the FTC, marketing to youth dropped by close to a fifth between 2006 and 2009, to US$1.79bn. There has also been a 46% drop in in-store marketing to children and teens, to $113m.

Some of this may be accounted for by a natural shift towards online marketing, which is cheaper and can be more targeted. For example, the FTC notes that spending on digital and viral food and soft drink marketing rose by 50% between 2006 and 2009, albeit still only accounting for 7% of total expenditure, at $122.5m.

By contrast, spending on television advertising to youth fell by a fifth over the same period.

Still, beyond this natural shift in marketing platforms, FTC is convinced that things are changing for the better as a result of self-regulation.

This attitude continues into the realm of nutrition, which is the next key step of both the FTC and industry in 2013.

By the end of this year, those food giants part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) - such as Nestle, Kraft and Unilever - will introduce uniform nutrition criteria for marketing to children and teenagers. This includes limits on calories, saturated fat, trans fat, sodium and sugars, as well as active promotion of healthier food and drink.

On this issue, the FTC is keen to see more, but its words sound more like fatherly advice than those backed by the full force of the world's largest superpower.

Nutrition criteria, it says, "will likely lead to further improvements in the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children, but could be further strengthened to more closely track key dietary advice in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans".

In the conclusion, it adds: "The Commission believes that the food industry can – and should – make further progress in using its marketing ingenuity and product portfolio to address childhood obesity."

Inevitably, those campaigning for faster change via regulation will see the FTC's stance as too soft. For the food industry, there is certainly little in the FTC's report that will set the heart racing.


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