NEW YORK — The National Advertising Review Council here and the Council of Better Business Bureaus have added two key initiatives to the fight against childhood obesity. Ten food and beverage manufacturers — collectively producing more than two-thirds of ads viewed by children — announced their commitment to the new, voluntary Children's Food and Beverage Initiative. As part of their involvement, companies including Kellogg, Kraft and Campbell Soup agreed to devote 50% of all ads directed to children under 12 to products representing healthy dietary choices and/or healthy lifestyle messages, among other things. Revisions to the Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Children's Advertising, which will affect all children's advertisers, were also announced. They provide new authorization for the CBBB's Children's Advertising Review Unit to take action against ads that blur the distinction between advertisements and program/editorial content in ways that mislead children. SN asked C. Lee Peeler, president and chief executive officer, NARC, and executive vice president of advertising self-regulation for the CBBB, about the new program, the revisions and the effect they'll have on retailers and their suppliers.
SN: When will the recently announced changes take effect?
PEELER: We expect the initiative to be up and running within six to nine months [from the time of the November announcement]. The revised CARU guidelines were effective immediately.
SN: What role might supermarkets play in enforcing/abiding by both voluntary and mandatory children's advertising regulations?
PEELER: Every supermarket that directs advertising to kids should be familiar with the CARU guidelines. CARU examines advertising directed to children under the age of 12 to assure that such advertising is truthful, non-deceptive and appropriate given children's limited knowledge, experience, sophistication and maturity. If a grocer elects to advertise directly to children under 12, those ads must comply with the CARU guidelines.
SN: Critics of the CARU revisions argued that they may be impossible for advertisers to meet because scientific studies have shown that children under 8 do not have the capacity to understand the persuasive nature of advertisements. What is your response?
PEELER: The CARU guidelines are built on the recognition of the special vulnerabilities of young children: their inexperience, immaturity, susceptibility to being misled or unduly influenced and their lack of cognitive skills needed to evaluate the credibility of advertising. For that reason the guidelines hold advertisers to high standards when they direct advertising to children under 12. These standards go well beyond those imposed on advertising directed to adults. In contrast to this successful self-regulatory program, past efforts by the government to ban advertising to young children based on their cognitive limitations floundered based on findings that such restrictions were impractical, ineffective and likely illegal.
SN: To what sort of sanctions might an advertiser be subject if they violate the newly revised CARU guidelines?
PEELER: Two advantages of the advertising industry's system of self-regulation are that it works faster than regulatory agencies and is less punitive. When CARU learns of a possible violation of its guidelines, it reviews the advertising in question, reaches a determination and publishes a decision — generally in fewer than 60 days. In better than 95% of CARU cases, advertisers voluntarily comply with those decisions. When advertisers do not comply, the case can be referred to the Federal Trade Commission.
SN: And what consequences are there if companies don't meet their voluntary commitments?
PEELER: Under the terms of the initiative, a company that does not meet its commitment may be expelled from the program and, in appropriate circumstances, be referred to appropriate regulatory authorities, such as the FTC.
SN: Have any food or beverage manufacturers participating in the new, voluntary Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative announced plans to reformulate products for advertising purposes?
PEELER: We know that a number of the charter participants in the initiative have already taken significant steps to assure that the products advertised to children are healthier, but until companies begin submitting their individual commitments for review and evaluation, we won't know the role product reformulation will play in those commitments.
SN: U.K. television regulator Ofcom recently announced that a total ban on advertising foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children under age 16 will take effect this month. Do you see U.S. regulations taking the same drastic route?
PEELER: We think the positive self-regulatory approach contained in the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative is a much better approach than regulatory bans on product advertising. Self-regulation can be more flexible and more dynamic than government regulation. For example, the model reflected in the initiative offers the opportunity for continuous improvement rather than a static set of regulatory standards. Moreover, studies show that advertising bans can significantly reduce the pressure for marketers to improve less healthy products, thus potentially harming consumers in the long run.