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In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission reported the food and beverage industry spends $1.8 billion each year on food marketing to kids. As a parent, that number makes me tired, and the advertisements themselves exhaust me. I know I’m not alone—even the strongest among us have been worn down by the pester-power of a determined four-year-old who wants what she’s seen in an ad.


I want my child to eat healthfully and I want to limit her exposure to food marketing that promotes unhealthy food choices. But the ads are everywhere – on television, radio, magazines, the Internet, billboards, and buses; in grocery stores, schools, recreational centers, movie theatres, and amusement parks.Pepsi’s super-slick “Live for Now” Campaign, for example, capitalizes on kids’ desire to live in the present and gives no inkling of the future health risks associated with consumption of sugary soft drinks. And there are many more examples of egregious junk food ads targeted to kids; take a look at the Food Marketing Workgroup’s Wall of Shame.

 Creative Commons Flickr Chuck Allen

These ads persist because food marketing to kids is largely unregulated. The federal Children’s Television Act puts some limits on the number of commercials that can be shown during children’s programs. But otherwise, there are no federal laws that specifically address how products can be marketed to children or that limit the types of food or drink products in ads targeted at kids. So what can concerned parents do? Report Misleading Ads to the FTC Parents can start by taking advantage of federal and state laws against deceptive or unfair marketing practices. When they come across junk food and beverage advertisements that are particularly troubling, they can report the relevant company and advertisement to both the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and industry’s own self-regulatory bodies. Examples of unfair or deceptive practices that can be reported to the FTC might include the following:

  • Claims about health benefits or other product characteristics that are not true or not supported by studies; and
  • Sales tactics that take advantage of children’s lack of cognitive ability, experience, and sophistication.

You can find a detailed list of examples of unfair practices in ChangeLab Solutions’ factsheet, “Identifying and Reporting Unfair, Misleading, and Deceptive Ads and Marketing.” The FTC enforces federal laws against such advertising and marketing practices in all media, including television, radio, print, websites, mobile phones, and even word of mouth. The Industry’s Own Programs In addition to the FTC, two industry self-regulatory programs focus on advertising directed at young children: The Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) and The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Launched in 1974, CARU monitors national advertising of all products—not just food and beverages— and it applies to any paid commercial message in any medium, including traditional print and broadcast media, web-based and mobile, labeling, and advertising in stores or restaurants. CARU’s self-described purpose is to ensure advertising “primarily directed” at children ages 11 and younger is not deceptive, inappropriate, or unfair, and its intent is to “advance truthfulness, accuracy, and consistency” with its own self-regulatory program and with other relevant laws. CARU has a written set of standards companies are supposed to follow when they advertise products to children ages 11 and younger.

Photo credit Lydia Daniller/ChangeLab Solutions

CFBAI focuses just on food and beverage marketing and includes most types of advertising, with the exception of product packaging, point-of-sale materials, company-owned characters, and in-school branded product displays, fundraising activities, and charitable donations. It requires its members to pledge to refrain from using certain methods to sell their products to children ages 11 and younger if the advertisement is “primarily directed” to these children, unless the product meets certain nutritional criteria. Initially, participating companies were allowed to set their own nutritional standards, but starting in 2014, each company will be required to meet uniform nutrition criteria established by CFBAI. The companies participating in CFBAI as of February 2013 were: Burger King Corp., Campbell Soup Company, The Coca-Cola Company, ConAgra Foods, The Dannon Company, General Mills, The Hershey Company, Hillshire Brands, Kellogg Company, Kraft Foods Group, Mars, McDonald’s USA, Nestlé USA, PepsiCo, Post Foods, and Unilever United States. Let’s Turn Pester-Power Back On These Companies These three bodies—the FTC, CARU and CFBAI—are supposed to enforce marketing standards to children. But the FTC, with its limited staff and resources, and CARU & CFBAI, with their inherent self-interest in favor of the food and beverage companies, are not fail-safe. Parents, researchers, and advocates must serve as eyes and ears on the ground, and can report ads that violate either the law or self-regulatory principles.


For more information about how to report unfair and deceptive marketing check out ChangeLab Solutions’ new factsheet, Putting a Stop to Misleading Marketing: How to Report Ads That Violate Industry Self-Regulatory Guidelines, and our factsheet on identifying and reporting deceptive ads to the FTC . Let’s turn pester-power back on the food and beverage companies, and demand responsible advertising. Photo credits: top image - Creative Commons Flickr David Faruqhar, scoreboard - Creative Commons Flickr Chuck Allen, third image image - Creative Commons Flickr Ken8212, child/fast food meal - Lydia Daniller, bottom image - #LiveForNow

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