The junk food hydra: Ad industry self-regulation is oxymoronic

hydra.jpgNew media channels for sugary snacks parallel a Greek mythology lesson…even if the head is cut off the Hydra, two more pop up on the serpent to replace it. The junk food siren endlessly beckons to kids…

Just when parents were granted a mini-exhale with the tightening of a few minor junk food regulations in last week’s newly released CARU guidelines, the marketing beast appears more insidious than ever.

News reports touted “significant developments” in the self-regulation of advertising directed to children under 12,” but consider the source…PR Newswire, with a heavy emphasis on the PR, not the news, or even the wire.

The only ‘changes’ taking place with self-regulation are peripheral at best…Want proof?

Reuters has a solid overview and MSN and the Washington Post blog tells the story well. But one look inside our industry reveals how ‘seriously’ advertisers are taking the solemn, stern, finger-wagging to behave.

Headlines for Brandweek? “Food Industry Tweaks Ad Guidelines.” Ahem. Hardly an overhaul, eh? Need more evidence it’s a crock?

Industry wags give tips to each other about how to ‘be ready’ in case there is EVER a shift in policy.

Then there’s the light treatment in the blogopshere, referencing the obvious loopholes in the web presence and advergaming clause…

New interactive game guidelines say food marketers should:

“…limit products shown in interactive games to healthy dietary choices, or incorporate healthy lifestyle messages in the games.” A second rule dictates that “if an advertiser integrates a commercial message into the content of a game or activity, then the advertiser should make clear, in a manner that will be easily understood by the targeted audience, that it is an advertisement.”

Here’s a sample shrug from ClickZ Internet Marketing Solutions: “My first take on the second rule is that it’s a virtually meaningless gesture, since the “targeted audience” referred to is children under 12 who often can’t distinguish between content and advertising anyway.”

Nope, apparently self-regulation news doesn’t reflect anyone quaking in their boots just yet. My eyebrows DID raise at the election results cover story from the industry though.

The Ad Age article was titled, “Democrats set sights on drug, kids’ advertising.”

Pardon my incredulous response, but since when is policy in the best interest of children a blue state vs. red state ideological debate?

That concept truly escapes me.

I don’t care if you’re pink-purple polka-dotted-partisan, it’s blatantly irresponsible to be targeting young kids directly with junk food toxins of epic proportion adding to the health care crisis to make a quick buck on junior’s lousy habits.

A quick peek behind the industry curtain reveals how food industry groups have pooled their resources to counter the ‘assault’ of junk food critics like Fast Food Nation with Best Food Nation.

Supposedly Congressional control will now foul up the way ad folks do business, because the FCC will be watched closer on media consolidation, and Kennedy et al could raise prospects of legislation limiting TV ads for drugs and junk food.

Wow. Shaping Youth is nonpartisan, but I’ve gotta say, I’d sign up for that platform in a heartbeat!!

MOST of us in the ‘massive middle’ are sick and tired of being held 100% responsible in the ‘blame the parents’ role, when our kids are being DIRECT TARGETED completely out of range of us…

…In school, via advergaming, on mobile or SMS texting campaigns.

How do we ‘self-regulate’ THAT as parents?

Shall we trust industry to self-rein? Chyeah.

And it just keeps on coming…

Any preteen parent knows text messaging is wildly popular with SMS (short message service) delivering dating tips, chat opportunities, horoscopes, celebrity polls, and junk food contests.

Consider THAT when marketers are selling ‘kids safety’ for mobile phones, much less when parents are buying into it.

Next thing you know, your middle-schooler is speed-dialing candy bar ‘cash backs’ from the checkout line and adding ringtones and wallpaper via bubble gum wrappers.

Oh yeah, they’re “self-regulating” junk food alright. You betcha.

Then there’s the whole ‘m-commerce’ trend to track next…

Can you feel the undertow sucking your middle schooler into the vortex as they add the latest ‘Bling’ rhinestones to their ‘emergency’ phone with their own earned money?

Even the poorest kids are racking up mega-mobile phone sales.

November’s Revenue magazine claims 43% of U.S. marketers are using, or are about to use mobile in the next year, and nearly 90% of major brands plan to market to mobile phones by 2008.

Whoa, nellie. Put me on your ‘do not call list,’ baby. And hands-off my daughter too.

In the U.K. 9 out of 10 children aged 12 own a mobile phone, and in the U.S., 55% of teens and 25% of kids under 12 own mobile phones, so clearly, kids are in marketing crosshairs, and ‘self-regulation’ is an oxymoron.

Mobile is the next big wave targeting kids voraciously and m-commerce (paying for an item through your cell phone) is the data driven mode of choice as advertisers salivate at the cheap way to send instant coupons with opt-in convenience and go viral in a big way.

In fairness, that could be useful for money-saving moms, but keep your mitts off the kids, fergawdsakes.

The Brits are reining in kids’ mobile exposure but Americans are still flailing around as newbies not even using half their own phone functions, much less stressing about filters and spam.

I’ll be writing an entirely separate feature on mobile trend tracking of kids…

This was meant to be strictly a ‘self-regulation’ expose on the ‘truth’ in the new CARU guidelines to limit junk food messaging to children.

Big hint here…the industry’s embedded forms of junk food marketing are just going deeper into dodge ball mode. My prediction?

Junk food will go even MORE covert, and tag team with even bigger co-branded efforts…

…Like MSN’s “Refreshing Wall” urging hipsters to “leave your mark on the wall for all to see” as kids graffiti an entire city using online spraypaint stencils, tools and stamps to pour out their artistic expression.

The allure of “legal tagging” appeals to the ‘test the limit’ tweens and the subtle icons, shapes and color palette that reinforces the brand is seamless.

At the risk of being a killjoy, seems the wall is nothing short of corporate vandalism, positioned as urban interactive fun, but at least it’s virtual vandalism, eh? That’s probably the m.o. in Second Life anyway…

Oh, and why is the wall so refreshing? It’s co-branded with Sprite, of course.

Ah, junk food marketing AND the creation of little thug wannabes eager to spray paint a town…wonderful behavioral cues.

I totally agree with Murdock on this one. It may be a fun, beautifully designed site, but teaching kids to deface property and chug soda is a bit of an ‘artistic’ stretch.

Meanwhile, marketers are self-reining. Yup, count on it, folks…Kinda like that free oceanfront land in Botswana…

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