After a swift left to the chin in early September from the Republican-controlled House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair, Rep. Fred Upton, David Vladeck, the FTC Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, testified before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, and the Subcommittee on Health, October 12, 2011, discussing the International Working Group (IWG) and changes that are underway.
- The tone of Vladeck’s statement bore a marked respect for, though not deference toward, advertising self-regulation. This is in contrast to his speech before the self-regulatory National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus October 3, 2011, in which he only mentioned in passing the positive role of self-regulation. In his statement before the Subcommittees, he made a much more significant effort to acknowledge the success that has been achieved to date by self regulation both in the form of the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) and the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI).
- Because there is no scientific link between marketing of food and obesity, Vladeck made it clear that the Commission is asking industry to take on a share of the responsibility for solving the obesity problem “regardless of whether or to what extent food marketing may have contributed to the problem of childhood obesity” in the first place. In other words, according to Vladeck, it is a proper role of government to pressure industry to help solve multi-factored social problems by not marketing (and therefore not selling) products that may have no relationship to the social problems that the government is seeking to address. Vladeck referred the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Report from 2008 to highlight the fact that marketing influences food and beverage preferences, purchase requests and short-term diets of children under 12 to support the Commission’s position that industry should use its marketing power to eat certain foods rather than other foods. One can interpret this initiative as simply government telling industry what to advertise and what to sell based on a stated political goal. “Children’s health is the ultimate goal, and marketing of more nutritious foods is one effective tool to help achieve that goal.”
- Vladeck, who famously dismissed the notion that the IWG proposals could raise First Amendment concerns last summer in a blog post, apparently has been convinced that there may be some validity to the First Amendment arguments made by academics and lawyers in the advertising field. He states, “Our commitment to finding the best balance between what is best for children’s health and what is workable for industry has guided this entire process. . . . .The Working Group’s proposal is strictly voluntary. The Commission recognizes that some forms of regulatory action could raise First Amendment concerns.”
After 29,000 comments and after new CFBAI guidelines, which go a long way toward achieving the government’s goal of restricting marketing behavior related to certain foods and beverages, the FTC is signaling significant changes to its proposals. Those changes include:
- Limiting the scope of marketing to children to those aged 2-11, rather than the originally proposed 2-17. Vladeck: “It is often difficult to distinguish marketing designed to appeal to this age group from marketing directed to a general or adult audience.”
- Limiting the scope of the marketing activities included within the proposals. Vladeck: “The FTC staff believes that philanthropic activities, charitable events, community programs, entertainment and sporting events, and theme parks are, for the most part, directed to families or the general community and do not warrant inclusion with more specifically child-directed marketing. Moreover, it would be counter productive to discourage food company sponsorship of these activities to the extent that many benefit children’s health by promoting physical activity.”
- Eliminating recommendations regarding trade dress and brands. Vladeck: “The Commission staff does not contemplate recommending that food companies change the trade dress elements of their packaging or remove brand equity characters from food products that don’t meet nutrition recommendations.”
- Eliminating recommendations regarding in-store displays and packaging of seasonal or holiday confections.
- Adjusting the proposed audience share criterion for “traditional media marketing,” including television, radio, and print, from 30 percent children ages 2 to 11 years, to 35 percent – which is the same age criterion used by CFBAI.
The IWG proposal is not dead, however. Expect to see the revised version focused more specifically on traditional media and on online, digital, and social marketing. Also, the IWG proposal will still seek to press its recommendations in the area of advertising or product placement in movies and video games. Additionally, it will cover sweepstakes and premium offers. And, in the one remaining proposal that will cover children and adolescents, Vladeck signaled that the proposal will cover marketing activities in schools for both children and adolescents.
Thus, the IWG proposal will be scaled back significantly. One important lesson: Self-regulation is critical, but industry must be careful of using self-regulation so aggressively that it creates a blueprint for “voluntary” regulation by governmental bodies. Cooperation between government and industry that results in co-regulation is not self-regulation. With the FTC standing right beside self-regulatory efforts, tweaking self-regulation as it deems necessary to advance espoused governmental goals of protecting children, the augmented CFBAI standards may be likely to be the presumptive norm for governmental expectations (and enforcement?). Let’s hope that the blueprint we’re now working off of will build a structure we can all live in.