‘Voluntary’ and ‘self-regulated’ are terms that exasperate advocates of tougher laws on marketing food to children. Yet self-regulatory initiatives can only gain credibility over time, and Ben Cooper argues that they can only be slated as ineffective once they have proven to be so.

This week’s announcement in the US of a major initiative by ten food and beverage companies aimed at shifting the emphasis of advertising to under-12s towards healthier products, along with a significant tightening of existing advertising guidelines, has once again put self-regulation under the spotlight.

The Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC) understandably trumpeted the two announcements, and in many ways they have good reason so to do. The measures are detailed and well conceived, and it is hard to argue that what is being proposed is not at least a step in the right direction, and could help in the battle against rising childhood obesity.

The ten companies behind the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative have undertaken to devote at least half their TV, radio, print and online advertising directed to children to healthier choices and/or to good nutrition messages; to limit products shown in interactive games to healthier dietary choices or incorporate healthy lifestyle messages into the games; not to advertise in elementary schools; not to engage in product placement in editorial and entertainment content; and to reduce the use of third-party licensed characters in advertising that does not meet the initiative’s product or messaging criteria.

Meanwhile, the changes to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) advertising code include a new provision across all media prohibiting advertising that “blurs the distinction between advertising and programme/editorial content in ways that would be misleading to children”. The code will also address the use of commercial messages in interactive games, sometimes referred to as advergaming.

But as is often the case, the problem lies not so much in the detail of the proposals but in the way they are to be carried through. In other words, it is the very idea of self-regulation itself which attracts criticism.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of advertising pressure group Commercial Alert, said: “Self-regulation is just another word for letting the fox regulate the chicken coop, which of course leads to dead chickens. Self-regulation has been a key ingredient in the childhood obesity epidemic. It is the problem, not the solution. The childhood obesity epidemic will continue until Congress passes tough new laws against marketing to children. Self-regulation is no substitute.”

Meanwhile, Jason Smith, associate executive director of the Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI), said the guidelines represent “the failure of industry self-regulation as a serious model”.

There were some extremely positive comments too, not least from Senator Tom Harkin, a prominent advocate of improving marketing practices toward children, who said: “These steps show that the industry is headed in the right direction in the ongoing battle to combat childhood obesity and surging rates of diabetes in children.”

Deborah Platt Majoras, chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), also said she was “highly encouraged by the Council of Better Business Bureaus’ initiative on children’s food and beverage advertising”, adding that the FTC and the Department of Health & Human Services’ had challenged the industry to develop creative self-regulatory programmes, and this new initiative and the changes to the CARU guidelines showed “real promise”.

Nevetherless, those charged with developing and overseeing self-regulatory programmes accept that the kind of criticism emanating from pressure groups and campaigners goes with the territory. Such criticism is focused specifically on the credibility of self-regulation, and what sceptics would see as the gulf between the bold rhetoric of industry-led social responsibility action and their true effectiveness. And such criticism can only really be countered by results.

Lee Peeler, NARC president and CEO, said he accepted that people want to see that self-regulation can deliver on its promises. “I think what the people who are in favour of a legislative approach are saying is that this is not going to change anything,” Peeler told just-food, “and the people who support this as an important step forward are saying we want to see whether it works, whether you can deliver.”

Peeler said both the CARU guidelines and the initiative were examples of “meaningful” self-regulation, with “clear criteria, transparency and accountability”. He also pointed out that the CARU guidelines were enforced through affirmative monitoring for compliance rather than just a complaints procedure.

Elisabeth Wenner, associate director of corporate and legal affairs at Kraft, one of the companies participating in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, said that undertaking the programme under the auspices of the CBBB was critical in establishing the credibility of the initiative, which brought “a new level of rigour, accountability and transparency” to self-regulation in this area. “Individual companies are going to publicly commit to putting certain guidelines in place and there will be third-party oversight,” Wenner said.

Like Peeler, Wenner also believes the initiative will ultimately be judged on results. The rhetoric was there, of course, but so was a clear idea that the ten companies are putting their credibility on the line. “We are doing what we believe is best for our consumers and this is consistent with what we believe parents want us to do. This is an industry saying ‘we hear you and we’re working toward helping to address those concerns you have, and this is an example of that’. Give it time. This is just the beginning.”

The implication here is that when self-regulatory initiatives are first launched they are most vulnerable to the accusation of being judged as self-serving industry rhetoric. It is only when they have been running for a while with some demonstrable success that they can truly gain credibility. But by the same token, the sceptics can only really pour scorn on self-regulatory measures as ineffective when they have proved to be so.