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Pulling the Plug on Fat Ads

Date: August 05, 2003

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NEW YORK - Companies who make fatty foods are under fire for their role in America's obesity. So how about the part their advertising plays in encouraging people to plow through a bag full of Doritos or a box of Oreos?

Some health advocates have already called for certain restrictions on food advertising in the
United States. Indeed, the other industry closely scrutinized for its health effects, tobacco, has had strict advertising regulations for decades. In 1971, cigarette advertising was effectively banned from television and radio. And in 1998, as part of the tobacco settlement between states and major tobacco companies, the cigarette makers agreed to remove all ads from outdoor and transit billboards.

There would be enormous repercussions if food ads faced bans or increased regulation, possibly affecting the entire landscape of fast-food franchises, packaged-goods players and grocery retailers. Giant food advertisers like McDonald's, Altria Group which owns a majority of Kraft Foods and PepsiCo are all in the top-25
U.S. advertisers, and each spent more than $1 billion on advertising last year. One estimate of marketing and advertising expenditure by the food industry tops $25 billion.

Surely not all food advertising could be wiped out; food is essentially good. But considered theoretically, the economic loss could be tremendous. Not only would it mean major cutbacks in ad spending--potentially restraining the exposure of the food companies to consumers--but it could also put limitations on most media, frrom television and radio to newspapers and magazines. And then there are other companies whose very existence relies on the continued presence of these major marketers, including advertising agencies, branding firms and production companies.

The possibility for such legislation does exist. "I find the likelihood very low," says Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president for government relations at the Association of National Advertisers, "but not impossible." More recent efforts to further restrict tobacco advertising, as in the 2001 case of Lorillard Tobacco V. Reilly, have been thwarted by First Amendment claims. And Jaffe points out important differences between food and tobacco: Food is legal, and there "certainly isn't credible evidence foods are addictive," he says.

But legislators are beginning to consider the need--and state provisions have been attempted to ban or discourage food advertising in schools. In June, New York State Assemblymman Felix Ortiz introduced legislation to impose a sales tax on TV ads for certain foods and other products to raise money for obesity programs. So maybe it's more than a lark.

"We've been talking to legislators who are just beginning to think about what they should do about it," says Margo Wootan, director for nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Whether they think there needs to be more money for counteradvertising or actual restrictions on the kinds of foods that are marketed to children and the techniques that are used."

 

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from Forbes, by Allison Fass

 

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