Health and children's advocates are turning up the volume on calls for tighter restrictions on television ads aimed at kids.
Stoking their efforts are growing concerns over obesity and research indicating that young viewers are especially susceptible to commercial messages.
Last month, the American Psychological Association called for sharp federal restrictions on commercials aimed at children younger than eight. Also last month, the Kaiser Family Foundation fingered TV watching and TV ads as prime suspects in rising juvenile-obesity rates. And at a recent U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, the debate over the mass media's role in obesity grew so heated that lawmakers are considering a follow-up hearing.
In the coming weeks, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the APA and other health-care groups plan to step up lobbying for more limits on ads. An organization of groups critical of youth advertising, called Stop Commercial Exploitation of Children, has begun a petition drive calling on the Federal Trade Commission or Government Accounting Office to review the oversight of marketing to children.
"We think it's time for the government to take a real hard look at the industry's practices," said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and head of the foundation-supported group. Dr. Linn cites estimates that companies spend $15 billion a year on marketing to children.
'You're in control'
Critics point to common themes in many kid-focused ads. They often rely on cartoon characters that young children recognize, such as Scooby-Doo, to sell snacks or sugared cereal. Many of the ads appeal to their young targets' rebellious impulses.
Recent spots for Kraft Foods Inc.'s Lunchables, for example, shows kids in crowded classrooms using the product like a videogame control to erase a pop quiz from the blackboard or fast-forward the hands of the clock. The ads end with, "You're in control."
In a spot for Kellogg Co.'s French Toast Pop Tarts, a boy enters a diner filled with unattractive adults, orders Pop Tarts and is instantly served, then saunters out. The grown-ups, still waiting for food, watch in awe.
In another Kellogg spot, for Eggo French Toaster Sticks, a guy in a French toast suit bursts from a car, leading police and a kid on a backyard chase. A commercial for Cap'n Crunch Choco Donuts, from PepsiCo's Quaker Oats, shows the captain crashing a ship into a swimming pool, sending up a shower of chocolate doughnuts, milk and a woman in a bathing suit.
"Usually grown-ups are just stupid and stand in the way of what kids want [in these ads]," says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston. "The idea is to create ... a sort of premature adolescent rebellion among kids."
Marketers, and not just those of kids foods, see a major threat brewing.
"Momentum, not just in the U.S., but in Europe as well, is building and we're watching developments very closely," says Tom Conley, president of the Toy Industry of America, a trade group. Strategy XXI Group Ltd., a New York consulting firm, is working for the toy-industry group to track efforts to limit youth ads in nearly 20 counties, including the United States, Australia, Brazil, Britain and Ireland.
"As an industry, we strongly reject the claims that advertising causes childhood obesity and the related premise that new government restrictions or bans on advertising to children should be imposed," said Bob Liodice, chief executive of the Association of National Advertisers, who testified at the Senate hearings.
Instead of governmental intervention, "parents must learn to 'say no' more frequently to their children," said David Jaffe, head of ANA's lobbying office in Washington, warning, "Any ban or restriction could bring children's programming on free TV to an end."
A 'fun cereal'
Many advertisers say they have no desire to set kids against authority figures with their ads. Kellogg says that it stands by the nutritional value of Cinnamon Marshmallow Scooby-Doo cereal and that cartoon characters are an appropriate way to help young consumers distinguish brands.
The French Toast Pop Tarts spot is meant to contrast generations, but no commercial is meant to show any group in a negative light, said Celeste Clark, a company spokeswoman.
"We are very sensitive to making sure the commercial messages aren't disparaging in any way."
Kraft says its Lunchables ads aren't meant to make kids rebel. The slogan "You're in Control" refers to how kids can build sandwiches with Lunchables, said Kathy Knuth, a spokeswoman. "Our belief is that moms still make the decision on what kids eat." said Susan Wolfe, a Quaker spokeswoman. Cap'n Crunch is a "fun cereal" and Quaker takes creative measures to create awareness for it. "Relative to the issue of childhood obesity, exercise definitely must play an active part of the solution," she added.
Current restrictions in the United States, enforced by the Federal Communications Commission under the 1990 Children's Television Act, limit ads on children's programs to no more than 10.5 minutes per half hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays. An industry-established group, the Children's Advertising Review Unit, or CARU, has been designated by the FTC since 1978 to be a self-regulating body, reviewing ads and claims targeted to children.
Tightening existing limits would take a law enacted by Congress or a change in administrative rules by the FTC or another agency, though any such measures would face fierce opposition from advertisers.
Critics of kids advertising say current restrictions don't keep up with changes in how children use media.
A growing number of children have TV sets in their bedrooms; the APA says that is one reason it undertook a review of research, comprising 120 studies and research papers over the past 30 years. In addition, the quantity of kids programming has grown. And more advertisers now rely on psychologists to help design ads.
How Europe does it
In Europe, Sweden, Norway, Belgium and Poland have enacted bans on advertising of varying degrees to children. Typically, ads aren't permitted to show children younger than 12 using or touting products. In May, the World Health Organization is planning to issue guidelines for governments on how to write laws restricting children's ads. The guidelines, of course, wouldn't force any nation to act but would buttress activists' credibility.
Several researchers call attention to a study published in 1999 in the Journal of the American Medical Association that was among the first to suggest a link between weight gain and TV watching. Conducted by Tom Robinson, an associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at Stanford University, the study raised questions about whether kids are gaining weight because they are less active, or for some other reason, perhaps related to TV watching.
Dr. Robinson enrolled about 200 third and fourth-graders in California in the seven-month study. Half of them watched less TV and played fewer videogames compared with the control group. Exercise levels for the two groups were about the same.
The ones who watched less TV gained on average lost two fewer pounds and one less inch in waist size. The ones who watched more TV and gained more weight consumed on average one more of their meals in front of the TV each day compared with the low-watching group.
Although the sample was too small to pinpoint definite causes of weight gain, Dr. Robinson theorizes that the smaller weight gain among kids who watched less TV "could be the result of being exposed to fewer ads on TV."
Or it could be a function of "simply spending less time sitting in front of the TV, where some children have a habit of eating." He has just finished gathering data for a follow-up study with 900 students, funded by the National Institutes of Health, which may provide more answers.