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The Wall Street Journal this morning has an interview with Jon Leibowitz, commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), who has been outspoken about the need to restrict the kinds of commercials for food and beverages that are seen by children; he has said that if companies don't show greater self-restraint, the FTC will step in and regulate the issue. And, he suggests in the interview that the FTC is taking a comprehensive look at advertising practices – not looking at commercials in a vacuum, but also at the “virtual ecosystem” of ads that envelopes television, print, in-store and the Internet.

Some excerpts:

• “I'd like to think that the approach we're taking at the FTC is in some ways a middle ground. It's not the government-mandated advertising restrictions that some foreign nations have adopted. On the other hand, it's not the laissez-faire approach that some industries once supported. What we'd like to see companies doing is real self-regulation -- adopting meaningful, nutrition-based standards for marketing their products to children and applying those restrictions to all forms of marketing. Another thing I'd like to see is the criteria that some companies use to determine what qualifies as a healthy dietary choice. If the standards are lax, and only a handful of TV shows and Internet sites are covered, then the self-regulatory efforts are not going to be terribly effective.”

• “On average, soft-drink companies spent $20 per American teenager in 2006; that's an awful lot of money for a particular product. The soft-drink companies have made a commitment in the context of the schools. If they could head down the road of making a similar commitment outside the context of the schools, that would be a step forward.”

• “One of the surprises in the [recent FTC] report was the prevalence of integrated advertising campaigns. They're sophisticated, they're multi-platform, they're cross-promotional … It’s a whole virtual ecosystem, so you can see an ad on TV, you buy the product, you go on the Internet, you enter a code, you collect points, you win a prize, the prize is a T-shirt, the T-shirt advertises the product. So we are seeing a fair amount of cross-promotional marketing. We only found $77 million in Internet advertising, but our guess is that it's very efficient advertising, because it's targeted.”

KC's View:
CPG and other food companies would be well-advised to take this very seriously…because if they attempt to finesse this issue, it is only going to end up with government regulation that will really give them something to whine about.

As a parent, I’m appalled by what I see on television sometimes. I would love to see a return to the “family hour,” in which the stuff shown on television between 8 pm and 9 pm is a lot tamer than some of the stuff shown now. This isn’t censorship – something I am completely against. But it is common sense and good taste.