FTC takes hard look at selling to kids

Two boys watch television with "Your Message Here" on screen

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KAI RYSSDAL: Take almost any kid under the age of 10 or so to the grocery store and they'll amaze you with their knowledge of consumer brands. They know which cereal is sugariest and which snack has more chocolate. The knowledge didn't come easy. It took hours sitting in front of a television set watching ads paid for by food and beverage makers. The Federal Trade Commission meets tomorrow to talk about those ads, and possibly about regulating how food companies sell their products.

That's not something the industry wants to have happen. So they're expected to reveal their own rules tomorrow. A lawsuit's already forced Kellogg to back off pitching its sugared cereals during children's programs. And it's thrown into question what will happen to the billion dollars or more spent marketing snacks to kids. From WBUR in Boston, Monica Brady-Myerov has more.


Monica Brady-Myerov: The Carlson household in Wakefield, Massachusetts, runs a healthy kitchen.

SHERRI CARLSON: You hungry? Do you want an apple? OK.

Sherri Carlson gives her 5-year-old daughter, Paige, an organic apple for a snack. She only buys organic food for her husband and three children. Sherri is also one of the plaintiffs whose lawsuit resulted in Kelloggs agreeing to adopt nutrition standards for the foods it markets to children. But none of that stops her daughter from demanding junk food when they are shopping.

CARLSON: She saw a product that she had never had. I can't say for sure, it was either Dora or Dragon Tails. Something . . . some kind of fruit roll-up thing. I was like, "No, I'm not getting that." Because I really dislike buying junk. And she had a complete meltdown. So, it was interesting because she had never had the product but she just saw the character and wanted it.

The tantrum made Sherri think. What was influencing her daughter's choices? It didn't take long to figure it out.

Sponge Bob is one of Paige's favorite shows. Sherri says her children watch a lot of TV and so they see a lot of commercials.

CARLSON: What is that one Paige?

PAIGE: Um, fruit gummies.

Carlson: Oh, Fruit Gushers. Now, is there anything nutritional about Fruit Gushers? Not really.

PAIGE: Sugar, sugar, artificial colors. Sugar, sugar, articifical colors . . .

Children see about 31 ads on TV an hour. And until the age of 8 they usually don't know ads are trying to sell them something.

The intent to sue was filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. After a year of negotiations, Kellogg's agreed last month to voluntarily stop marketing foods to kids under 12 that don't meet certain nutrition guidelines for sugar, fat, sodium and calories. About 30% of Kellogg's cereals will be pulled from ads on children's TV. It also agreed to stop using characters on products, such as putting Shrek on a box of Eggos.

Susan Linn, co-founder of the campaign, says public outrage has reached a tipping pint.

SUSAN LINN: There has been a really concerted grassroots effort to raise public awareness about the kinds of foods that are being marketed to kids, the kinds of technique the marketers are using.

And government is also turning up the heat. After Kellogg's announcement, one Congressman demanded to know what the other top five food and beverage companies would do. Some replied they already have limits in place. McDonalds, Pepsi and General Mills said they will unveil new initiatives at the Federal Trade Commission meeting. The food industry is motivated to make changes themselves, because members of Congress say they might make regulations if they don't. Kathleen Seiders is a professor of marketing at Boston College.

KATHLEEN SEIDERS: The food companies have had to take steps in terms of marketing to children, because it's just become too front and center as an issue. And also there's a fair amount of evidence that it has a negative effect. And we just can't afford that anymore because obesity is too big of a health problem.

Child advocate Susan Linn says she wishes the government would step in and do more.

LINN: One of the things about self-regulation is that a company can make a policy but they can change it at any time. There's nobody holding them accountable for that. And if these policies that they are implementing aren't profitable, you can bet your life that they're going to be changing them.

The impact of the voluntary guidelines might just be to move the ads. A new FTC study found that more than half of the ads kids watch aren't during what's considered children's programming. So Kellogg's could still pitch Pop Tarts, just so it airs during prime time.

In Boston, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov for Marketplace.

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