by Marion Nestle
Jul 1 2011

How Washington gives marketing to kids a free pass

The saddest thing I’ve read in ages is the FTC’s rebuttal to industry charges that it is trying to regulate food marketing to kids.  Not so, says FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection head David Vladeck:

The preliminary voluntary principles proposed in April by the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children have got people talking about kids, advertising, and nutrition…Here’s my take on some of the myths that have been percolating about the proposed principles.

MYTH #1:  The FTC plans to sue companies that don’t adopt the Working Group’s proposed nutrition principles.

Not so.  The Working Group’s job is to submit a report to Congress.  That’s all.  That’s what Congress told the group to do.  A report to Congress by an interagency working group provides no basis for law enforcement action by the FTC or by any of the other agencies participating in the Group.

MYTH #2:  The Working Group’s proposal is regulation by the back door.

Second verse, same as the first.  This is a report to Congress, not a rulemaking proceeding, so there’s no proposed government regulation….the FTC couldn’t issue a rule on this subject if it wanted to, which it doesn’t.  Simply put, a report like this can’t be a rule — whether it’s delivered to Congress by the front door, the back door, or the kitchen door.

And so it goes through ten more of the same.

Alas, food companies are not going to self-regulate themselves out of marketing to kids because they will lose sales if they do.

That’s why some government regulation would be helpful.  Isn’t government supposed to promote public health and rein in industry excesses when necessary?

Additional point: You still have time to submit comments.  Send them to the FTC by July 14 through this link.  Organizations that wish to sign on to the Food Marketing Workgroup’s letter should email Bethany Hanna Pokress by Monday, July 11.



  • Andy Ryan

    Just to show how successful some scoundrels have been not only at selling junk food but also at marketing junk ideas in easy to swallow bites: the government is always the problem, the market has a solution to everything, regulation is always bad, greed is always good, opposition means you are anti-freedom, unpatriotic and need to apologize.

  • Andy, you need to include the term “food police” and “democracy means I have a right to choose to eat junk food”.

  • Sebastian Goodsense

    ‘Nanny state’ about covers it.

  • Joe

    I recommend that all public health officials as they take continuing education study business and economics. Moreover it should be that they actually work in an actual business for a period of time. They might then see that without profit there will be no business.

    Secondly if there is going to be any government policy regarding how foods are marketed to kids that it be directed at parents. That policy should remind parents of the phrase I so often use with my kids “No, you can’t have that”

    You see that no matter what the official policy is smart business people will always work around it to continue making a profit (that why they exist). Is it not clear that government nutrition policy is what has perpetuated many of the claims often decried here? The policy that a low fat diet is the right thing to do has led to low fat and no fat products galore. Many of these would not exist if not for the official USDA nutrition policy to eat low fat.

    Conclusion: the slow clunky nature of government policy will always be way behind savvy business people. So perhaps the government should butt out.

  • Anthro

    Hey Joe,

    Do you really think that food companies spend billions of dollars on advertising because it DOESN’T work? Do you know how much they spend on advice from psychologists as to how to get around the parents? Hint: A LOT. Are you with all of your children all of the time to monitor everything that they eat? At friends’ houses? At school? Parents and industry need to work together for the health of all children, not just the ones lucky enough to have mindful parents, never see television, billboards, or golden arches.

    The same policies that recommend low fat diets also recommend appropriate daily calorie intake. If you eat a whole box of low fat (but high calorie) cookies that you see on TV constantly, is it the government recommendation or the advertising that is affecting your “choice”?

    What makes you think that people who support effective governmental regulation of the food industry have not run or owned businesses? How much profit is enough? How much growth is enough? Might there be some flaw in a system that can only be sustained by never-ending growth and the peddling of unhealthy products to children who can’t be watched every moment by busy parents who might be of an age where they themselves have grown up in this culture of advertising equals education?

  • Roxanne Rieske

    One of the major rules of business is that all organizations must evolve to conform to current social dynamics. When they don’t, they die. May beer breweries survived Prohibition by changing their product from beer to various kinds of sodas (rootbeer and birch beer being the most common). I’m sure PepsiCo can do the same.

  • Joe

    Thanks again for making my point.

    If parents who are the closest to their children who purchase and prepare most of the food for them cannot always protect them from the advertising of big food companies why can government policy?

    This is my main point of disagreement with those who looks to the government to be the solution to any problem. Why is it that a policy or law is thought to be a panacea? If I can’t protect my own children in my own home then there is no way that a government policy will ever be able to.

    It concerns me greatly that so many people see the government as the solution in everything. Especially for those things they don’t like. Just ban it or force certain behavior through taxes and policy???? That is not the charter of our country.

    No nutrition policy will ever stop what you say you are attempting to stop and it never will. It is not the role of the government to make and decide such things. As I noted before savvy business people will always find a way around government roadblocks they always have.

  • Charlie L

    Joe- Just a quick observation: Your all-or-nothing reasoning against any regulation of advertising to children is tantamount to concluding that because fire still does damage to property despite being sprayed with a lot of water that water does not help against fires.

  • Joe,

    If I who am closest to my family and children can’t protect them from people who want to hurt them or steal our things, how can the government possibly do it? If I can’t protect my own children in my own home then there is no way that a government policy against theft or violence will ever be able to.

    The government can’t stop bad people who want to do bad things to us – they will always find a way around it. Really, the courts and police are a waste of tax money and everybody should simply fend for themselves in whatever way they see fit. Education is the key, and saying No!

    Now, about traffic lights and speeding….

  • Sebastian Goodsense

    If the government, when following the wishes of the electorate, decides to constrain business activities then I have to go along with it. Yesir, that’s democracy.

  • Cathy Richards

    @Joe. Seatbelts in cars. Didn’t exist before. Some companies put them in, most didn’t do to expense and consumers not wanting to pay extra. Cars with seatbelts saved lives. Seatbelt promotion and public education campaigns. Same old story. Consumer reports on seatbelts. Same old story.

    Then came seatbelt laws — now all cars have seatbelts.

    The law evened the playing field so that people could only buy cars with seatbelts. That is, safer cars that cost more to make and so cost more to buy, but people kept buying. Profitable business, those cars.

    It can be done with food. Laws/regulations even the playing field. Voluntary compliance does not — giving an advantage to the cheaper to produce easier to market products, and putting the public’s health at risk and stressing the health care system so much that everyone suffers. Just like cars without seatbelts.

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