Food marketers are under mounting pressure to either change their advertising tactics aimed at kids, or the foods they promote to young people.
When you’re vying for the tastes and attention of children, it seems unfair to pit Dora the Explorer-branded soybeans against Chester the Cheetah’s neon yellow Cheetos.
New children’s advertising recommendations are designed to level the playing field.
Amy Jordan, who studies the effect of media on children at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the characters used to market food catch kids’ attention when they are still in diapers.
“By 2 or 3, they are able to ask for products by name,” Jordan said. “It’s not until about the age of 5 where they are able to develop critical skills, where they are able to look at marketing and say, ‘This person wants me to buy something.'”
Food makers say in recent years they’ve reduced the number of television ads targeting very young children. Meanwhile, they’ve stepped up efforts to include healthy lifestyle messages in children’s promotions.
Jordan, who said she sees those efforts, said showing Ronald McDonald riding a bicycle might send a mixed message and do little to influence childhood obesity or kids’ food preferences.
The new guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission and other agencies urge marketers to promote only foods low in fats, sugars and sodium when they are targeting children age 2 to 17.
Industry groups and policy makers will review the guidelines this summer.
After that, there may be even more pressure on advertisers to take a pledge and follow the recommendations.
Renee Hobbs, who founded the Media Education Lab at Temple University, said she expects the Federal Trade Commission and health advocates to pressure companies such as McDonald’s and Kellogg’s to adopt the recommendations. At this point, they are voluntary.
“The government wants them to not use Toucan Sam and all the other slick and compelling cartoon images that attract kids’ attention and try to sell them things,” she said.
Hobbs said that kind of pressure has worked in Europe.