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Swelling waistlines spur companies to change ads for kids

Eleven U.S. food and beverage companies say they're overhauling their advertising campaigns, stripping cartoon characters from sugar cereal boxes and pitching lower calorie snacks to children.

Eleven U.S. food and beverage companies say they're overhauling their advertising campaigns, stripping cartoon characters from sugar cereal boxes and pitching lower calorie snacks to children in a bid to help curb growing obesity levels.

The announcement from companies including Campbell Soup Co., General Mills Inc., McDonald's and PepsiCo Inc. came before a Wednesday Federal Trade Commission hearing on the effectiveness of self-regulatory marketing measures.

Margo Wootan, Nutrition Policy Director at the non-profit Center for Science in the Public Interest, said changing television, print, radio and online ads is a good first step but cautioned that more changes will have to be introduced for greater effect.

"I think this is a very good step forward," Wootan said. "It's not the end of the journey but it's a good way down the road."

Critics of self-regulation say the programs should be standardized and also note that companies will not face any penalties if they violate their own pledges.

In April, a group of food companies in Canada, including Hershey, McDonald's and Coca-Cola Ltd., said they would use half of their advertising to promote healthy eating and active living among children. Last month, Kellogg Co. announced plans to boost the nutritional value of its products and alter its advertising campaigns for kids.

Use of cartoon characters restricted, marketing plans to be reviewed

Among the changes promised Wednesday, seven companies said they would only use licensed characters such as Shrek or Dora the Explorer to promote healthier products in online or print media. Four companies said they would not advertise to children under the age of 12.

Fast food chain McDonald's said it would limit advertising its Happy Meals to meals that include apple dippers, low-fat milk, a hamburger or Chicken McNuggets to children under the age of 12. Similarly, PepsiCo says it will market its Baked Cheetos and Gatorade — two products deemed by the company to be among its healthier fare — to children.

The companies said they would share their marketing plans with the Council on Better Business Bureaus for review and reporting. Companies say they will introduce the changes by the end of 2008.

18% of Canadian children and adolescents overweight

Rising obesity levels among children are a concern for public health officials in North America.

In March, the House of Commons standing committee on health released a report that noted that childhood and adolescent overweight and obesity rates have spiked over the past three decades.

In 2004, 18 per cent of children and adolescents were overweight and eight per cent were obese, the report said.

With files from the Associated Press

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