April 28, 2011
U.S. Seeks New Limits on Food Ads for Children
Will Toucan Sam go the way of Joe Camel?
The federal government proposed
sweeping new guidelines
on Thursday that could push the food industry to overhaul how
it advertises cereal, soda pop, snacks, restaurant meals and other foods to children.
Citing an epidemic of childhood
, regulators are taking aim at a range of tactics used to market foods high in sugar,
fat or salt to children, including the use of cartoon characters like Toucan Sam, the brightly colored Froot Loops pitchman,
who appears in television commercials and online games as well as on cereal boxes.
Regulators are asking food makers and restaurant companies to make a choice: make your products healthier or stop
advertising them to youngsters.
“Toucan Sam can sell healthy food or junk food,” said Dale Kunkel, a communications professor at the
who studies the marketing of children’s food. “This forces Toucan Sam to be associated with healthier products.”
The guidelines, released by the Federal Trade Commission, encompass a broad range of marketing efforts, including
television and print ads, Web sites, online games that act as camouflaged advertisements, social media, product placements
in movies, the use of movie characters in cross-promotions and fast-food children’s meals. The inclusion of digital media,
such as product-based games, represents one of the government’s strongest efforts so far to address the extension of
children’s advertising into the online world,
which children’s health advocates say is a growing problem
The guidelines are meant to be voluntary, but companies are likely to face heavy pressure to adopt them. Companies that
choose to take part would have five to 10 years to bring their products and marketing into compliance.
“There’s clearly a demand hidden behind the velvet glove of the voluntary language,” said Dan Jaffe, an executive vice
president of the
Association of National Advertisers
, a trade group that represents marketers like
By explicitly tying advertising to childhood obesity, the government is suggesting there is a darker side to cuddly figures
like Cap’n Crunch, the Keebler elves, Ronald McDonald and the movie and television characters used to promote food. It
also raises the question of whether they might ultimately share the fate of Joe Camel, the cartoon figure used to promote
that was phased out amid allegations that it was meant to entice children to smoke.
“Our proposal really covers all forms of marketing to kids, and the product packaging and the images and themes on the
cereal boxes have tremendous appeal to kids,” said Michelle K. Rusk, a lawyer with the trade commission. “The goal is to
encourage children to eat more healthy foods because obesity is a huge health crisis.”
The F.T.C. said that in 2006, food companies spent nearly $2.3 billion to advertise to children.