Kids advertising in the crosshairs


A pair of legislators wants to do something about the growing epidemic of childhood obesity – and one thing their new bill would do is create the Office of Childhood Overweight and Obesity Prevention and Treatment within the Department of Health and Human Services. Part of its job would be to take a bite out of the 20K ads a child is said to see annually, many of which are presumed to be for unhealthy dietary items.

The bill’s sponsors are Jim Moran (D-VA) and Bill Pascrell (D-NJ).

“Many factors contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic,” said Moran when introducing the bill on the House floor. “Many children’s diets are too high in fats and carbohydrates and do not include enough fruits and vegetables. At the same time, our children are less active than they were a generation ago. More time front of the television means that kids are exposed to over 20,000 commercials a year, very few of which are encouraging them to exercise and eat right.”

Moran’s new OCOOPT would seek support from just about an entire cabinet’s worth of federal agencies (the Department of Defense is even on the list) and then some, with a role anticipated for both the FCC and FTC.

Foods would be placed into three broad categories; healthy, reasonably healthy and not healthy, and both the availability of a given food in school lunch programs and the rules regarding its advertising and marketing would hinge on which group it belongs to.

“There is evidence that parental ability to guide children’s consumption of food and beverages has been compromised by an environment that exposes children to an array of advertising and marketing messages for junk food, many directed at children too young to understand the selling purpose of advertising,” stated Moran. “Most children ages 8 years and under do not effectively comprehend the persuasive intent of marketing messages, and most children ages 4 years and under cannot consistently discriminate between television advertising and programming.”

Association of National Advertisers EVP Dan Jaffe, writing a blog post, said that Moran’s bill raised serious problems which have already been addressed in court.

Jaffe said that “…this bill requires government to make a food-by-food choice of what types of advertising can be shown and how much of it can be aired based on which foods it decides children should be ‘encouraged’ and ‘discouraged’ to consume. As has been established repeatedly by the courts, government cannot limit speech merely because it may be disfavored.”

He argued further, “…the U.S. Supreme Court has stated on many occasions that the level of discourse in society cannot be lowered to the level of the sandbox,” and added that for these reasons the bill would be unlikely to clear First Amendment hurdles.

Jaffe said that his organization was all in favor of working to combat childhood obesity. He concluded, “ANA is a strong supporter of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which is the industry’s self-regulatory response to the obesity problem. The initiative, which represents over 80% of advertising to children, is committed to shifting the mix of advertising to healthier food and beverage choices and encouraging healthier lifestyles.”

RBR-TVBR observation: This is the sort of thing that the voluntary measures on food advertising aimed at children were supposed to avoid. But just because the bill has been introduced does not mean it’s going to go anywhere. It has been referred to two committees – Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor; and at last look has not popped up on either calendar. We’ll be watching to see if and when it does.