NEW YORK – Eleven of the nation's biggest food and drink companies will adopt new rules to limit advertising to children under the age of 12, a move that restricts ads for products such as McDonald's Happy Meals and the use of popular cartoon characters.
The companies, including Campbell Soup Co.(CPB), General Mills Inc. (GIS) and PepsiCo Inc. (PEP), announced their new rules ahead of a Federal Trade Commission hearing Wednesday that steps up pressure on the companies to help curb the growing child obesity problem through more responsible marketing.
While food marketing changes alone will not solve the obesity problem, they will help parents make healthier choices for their children, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said in a statement.
She noted that the 11 companies account for about two-thirds of television food ads directed to kids.
The self-imposed rules include pledges by seven companies who will no longer use licensed characters, such as those made popular through movies or TV shows, to advertise online or in print media unless they're promoting their healthier products. Four other companies said they do not advertise at all to children under 12.
Margo Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director at the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the companies are taking a big step forward by pledging to stop marketing their worst junk food to kids on television, radio, print and on the Internet.
"I think this is a very good step forward. It's not the end of the journey but it's a good way down the road," she said.
Since the FTC first publicly raised the issue in 2005, many of the companies have started selling products with better nutrition in mind. The companies hope their self-regulation efforts — organized through the Council of Better Business Bureaus — will fend off any new and more restrictive federal regulation.
Parents are happy to see new rules that restrict the use of cartoon characters such Shrek, Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.
"It catches their eye when you're shopping," said Josephine Thomas, a mother of three boys who lives in Manhattan. "As soon as they see a Shrek or Mickey Mouse, they automatically look at that and they don't see what they really need. That's one of the biggest problems when you go shopping."
That's one reason the food companies have said they will now only use licensed characters to advertise their "better for you" products. Companies can still use the characters in their packaging without violating their pledges.
Some companies will use child-friendly cartoons to promote healthier foods. Frozen vegetable mixes in SpongeBob SquarePants packaging will land on store shelves within the month, General Mills spokeswoman Chris Shea said.
The self-imposed rules, which should be fully implemented by the end of 2008, differ widely from company to company.
McDonald's USA said it will advertise only two types of Happy Meal to children younger than 12: one with four Chicken McNuggets, apple dippers with caramel dip and low-fat white milk, or one with a hamburger, apple dippers and milk. They both meet the company-set requirement of less than 600 calories, and no more than 35 percent of calories from fat, 10 percent of calories from saturated fat or 35 percent total sugar by weight.
General Mills, which since 2005 has restricted ads to reduced-calorie products and limited its use of licensed characters, will now only advertise products with no more than 12 grams of sugar when marketing to the under-12 age group.
PepsiCo — owner of Frito-Lay and Quaker Foods and seller of Pepsi, Tropicana, Aquafina and Gatorade drinks — said it would only market two products to children: Baked Cheetos Cheese Flavored Snacks and Gatorade. Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo could decide in the future to advertise other products from its Smart Spot line, which meets company-set health standards.
The announcements follow earlier commitments from Kellogg Co. last month, Walt Disney Co. last fall and Kraft Foods Inc. in 2005.
Other participating companies are Cadbury Adams USA LLC, a subsidiary of Cadbury Schweppes PLC; The Coca-Cola Co.; The Hershey Co.; Unilever, maker of SlimFast and Country Crock; and Masterfoods USA, maker of Snickers, M&Ms and Skittles.
Wednesday's promises also include new commitments related to product placement, advertising of food and beverages in schools, and interactive ads online, which are expected be examined in greater detail by the FTC in coming months.
The agency is expected to survey 44 food and drink companies about how much they spend and what methods they use in ads directed at children, in an effort to bring more attention to the issue.