Focusing on Real Solutions to Childhood Obesity

May 12, 2010

The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity released an important report yesterday on “Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation.”  We commend the President and all of the members of the Task Force for their efforts to focus on real solutions to this serious national challenge.  The Action Plan released today contains a number of comprehensive strategies and recommendations. 

The marketing community has long recognized that childhood obesity is a serious national challenge.  In the years since the U.S. Surgeon General’s groundbreaking report in 2001, the advertising and media communities have developed a broad-ranging and multi-billion dollar series of steps to help respond to this threat.  There have been substantial and meaningful changes in the marketplace, in both the products that are being sold and the mix of advertising that children see.  Only recently has the federal government seriously stepped up to the plate.

The Task Force report contains some good and bad news.  It once again confirms the Institute of Medicine’s finding that “a causal link between marketing and increasing childhood obesity rates has yet to be firmly established.”  Additionally, the report acknowledges that any effort by the government to restrict food marketing would raise important First Amendment concerns.

Nevertheless, we have concerns about the report’s discussion of food marketing and several of the specific recommendations in this area.

The report has some wide-ranging marketing recommendations that unfortunately rest on a weak analytical foundation.  The various recommendations do not seem to grow organically from a careful analysis or data sets.  While there are some citations to studies, the probative value of this information is not carefully examined to provide a basis for the broad conclusions that are drawn.

Also, we believe the report seriously undervalues the efforts of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).  The 16 companies that are currently participating in the Initiative carry out almost 80% of television food, beverage and restaurant advertising directed to children under age 12.  Through the voluntary commitments of the CFBAI participants, the landscape of children’s advertising is significantly different than it was several years ago.  While more can be done, this deserves to be acknowledged.  In addition, the CFBAI has recently expanded the scope of media venues that are covered by the pledge program.

It’s also worth noting that food and beverage advertising has actually declined while obesity rates have grown.  ANA and the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) have conducted several studies of ad spending and exposures using Nielsen Media Research data.  Each survey has shown that the amount of spending for food and beverage ads directed to children has significantly declined over the last decade.  FTC studies have confirmed this finding as well.
In addition, The Task Force report fails to acknowledge the significant efforts of The Ad Council to address this challenge.  The Ad Council has partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) since 2004 on obesity prevention public services ads.  The “Small Step” campaign was launched in 2004 and was expanded to target children in 2005.  In 2008, HHS and The Ad Council launched a new series of public service ads featuring characters from the film, “Where the Wild Things Are.” 

Media companies (broadcast, cable, online, print and outdoor) have donated almost half a billion dollars to this effort.  The Ad Council’s childhood obesity prevention campaign has received almost $178 million in donated media support and the adult obesity campaign has received more than $318 million in donated media support.  Millions of dollars of time and talent have also been donated by marketers and advertising agencies in the development and creation of the public service ads. 

Earlier this year, The Ad Council was asked by First Lady Michelle Obama to support her “Let’s Move” initiative by developing messages to the American public that will achieve that program’s goals.
While the report acknowledges First Amendment interests, several of the specific recommendations raise those very same concerns.  For example, Recommendation 2.8 proposes involving the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the development of a system of ratings for TV commercials that would enable parents to block “unhealthy food and beverage advertising from all programming.”

Recommendation 2.9 notes that if voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of “less healthy foods and beverages” do not yield substantial results, the FCC should consider changes in the laws regulating advertising during children’s programming.

Any effort by the FCC to restrict food marketing or impose a commercial ratings and blocking system would raise very serious First Amendment concerns.  It would also seriously undermine the economic foundation that advertising provides for television programming, particularly children’s television. 

We are pleased that the Task Force report acknowledges the need for a multi-faceted comprehensive approach that involves more physical activity and nutrition education.  We have been lobbying with other groups for several years for increased funding for the anti-obesity programs of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It is past time for the government to step up to the plate and work on multi-faceted solutions, rather than placing its primary emphasis on restricting advertising. 

We very much appreciate the fact that the report calls for more industry self-regulation and that FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz stated that new legislation or regulation should be the last resort.  We are completely committed to strong self-regulatory efforts, but those efforts must be reasonable and appropriate and based on careful analysis and research and marketplace realities.  

The ad community is redoubling its efforts to help meet the challenge of obesity in the United States.  We will work with the White House Task Force and all other interested groups to continue to accelerate those efforts in the future.

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