Junk Food Fight: Should Ads Stop Targeting Teens?

A screen shot of Doritos Asylum 626 project, an interactive, online horror movie created to attract teenage consumers.

hide captionA screen shot of Doritos Asylum 626 project, an interactive, online horror movie created to attract teenage consumers.

Asylum 626

The government says junk food marketers shouldn't advertise to kids. Not just on TV, but also online, in schools and in stores.

The guidelines being proposed are voluntary; food companies can opt out. Still, with four powerful agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, throwing their weight behind the proposal, the food industry is taking the measure seriously.

One of the most contentious issues is whether the marketing limits should be applied to older kids, aged 12 to 17 — like 13-year-old Reed Weisenberger.

"I always want pizza whenever I see a pizza commercial," he says during a recent visit to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station with his mom Cindy and a group of his friends.

Cindy Weisenberger dodges such requests regularly. Earlier, it was for giant caffeinated energy drinks.

"These guys on the way here wanted to buy Monster drinks," she says. "And I said, 'I'm not taking any kids that are drinking Monster drinks.'"

To those who want to limit kids' exposure to billions of dollars worth of food ads, the stakes are much higher than one parent's ongoing battle. About a third of U.S. adolescents are obese, and many blame successful marketing campaigns for contributing to the problem.

The agencies drafting the guidelines call themselves the Interagency Working Group. In addition to the FTC and FDA, the group includes the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control.

'Horrifying' Tactics

This group broke from the past by seeking to include 12- to 17-year-olds in its guidelines. Traditionally, limits on marketing focused on the very young. But the government sought to expand them to older children, in part because they are heavy consumers of social media, cell phone messages and online games — the new frontier for ads.

"What we're talking about are very complicated and very subtle forms of marketing that aren't always clear as such," says Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communications at American University and an advocate for limiting food ads to teens.

As an example, she cites an online ad sponsored by Doritos that mimics a horror movie, and which draws in users' friends using Facebook or Twitter.

Montgomery says such ads work subliminally and use friends to influence other friends.

But efforts to restrict ads to teens draw lots of opposition from the food and advertising industries. The industries say the overlap between teen and adult audiences makes the proposed restrictions impractical.

Is It Feasible?

Elaine Kolish directs an industry-funded program called the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. For the past five years this initiative sponsored its own voluntary standards that focus only on the 12-and-under set.

"You know, we let kids drive and we let them hold jobs when they're 16. They can get married in some states, and they can join the military with permission, and they can be held criminally responsible for their actions in a number of situations," she says. "So I think that the notion that you'd have to have nutrition standards that say you can't let a kid see an ad for a french fry but you can let them join the military doesn't really make a lot of sense."

Advocates say whether the guidelines will include limits on teen marketing depends largely on how hard the government is willing to fight the industry.

Mary Engle, a director of advertising practices at the FTC, seems to suggest the government doesn't think it can win that fight.

"I think the application of the principles to teenagers was definitely a point of contention," she says. "And the working group has already signaled that by asking questions about limiting it to children under age 12, that we recognize that it may not be really feasible."

The deadline for public comments to the working group is July 14. The final guidelines are expected by the end of the year.

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