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Junk Food Fight: Should Ads Stop Targeting Teens?

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Junk Food Fight: Should Ads Stop Targeting Teens?

Children's Health

Junk Food Fight: Should Ads Stop Targeting Teens?

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The government wants to cut down on the amount of advertising kids see for junk food, not just on TV, but online, in schools and in stores. It's proposing voluntary guidelines. Four powerful agencies including the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, are throwing their weight behind the plan and that means the food industry is listening. One of the most contentious parts of the proposal focuses on whether to put marketing limits on older kids, those between the ages of 12 and 17. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI: Parents are probably familiar with this kind of food lobby.

REED WEISENBERGER: I always want pizza whenever I see a pizza commercial.

Mr. CINDY WEISENBERGER (Mother): Do I get you pizza?


NOGUCHI: Thirteen-year-old Reed Weisenberger is in Washington DC'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.

Ms. WEISENBERGER: These guys on our way here were wanting to buy Monster drinks. And I said, I'm not taking any kids that are drinking Monster drinks.

NOGUCHI: To those who want to limit kids' exposure to billions of dollars 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, it includes the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control.

This working 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 wants to start including older kids because they are heavy consumers of social media, cell phone messages, and online games - the new frontier for ads.

KATHRYN MONTGOMERY (American University communications professor): What we're talking about are very complicated and subtle forms of marketing that aren't always clear as such.

NOGUCHI: Kathryn Montgomery is 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. It draws in users' friends using Facebook and Twitter.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man (Announcer): And then we made it personal. The more information he gave us at registration, the creepier the experience.

NOGUCHI: Montgomery says ads like these are immersive and work subliminally. They use friends to influence other friends. But efforts to restrict ads to teens draw a lot of opposition from the food and advertising industries. They say the overlap between the teen audience and the adult audience makes it too difficult to make restrictions practical. 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.

Ms. ELAINE KOLISH (Director, Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative): You know we let kids drive and we let them hold jobs when they're 16. And 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. 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.

NOGUCHI: Advocates say whether the guidelines will include limits on teen marketing depends largely on how hard the government is willing to fight industry. Mary Engle, is a director of advertising practices at the FTC. She doesn't sound like she's itching for a fight.

Ms. MARY ENGLE (Director, Advertising Practices, FTC): I think the application of the principles to teenagers was definitely a point of contention and the working group has already signaled that we recognize that it may not be really feasible.

NOGUCHI: The public can submit comments to the working group until July 14th. The final version of the guidelines are expected by end of the year.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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