Backed by ten of the nation's largest food and beverage companies, the initiative involves a voluntary self-regulation program, which would impose new requirements on product advertising to kids under 12.
The changes, expected to be implemented within the next six to nine months, are designed to shift the mix of advertising messages to children to encourage a healthier diet and lifestyle, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council (NARC).
Initial participants in the new Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative include Cadbury Schweppes, Campbell Soup, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, PepsiCo and Unilever.
These companies, which are thought to account for more than two-thirds of children's food and beverage television advertising expenditures, have committed to devote at least half of their kids' advertising to promote healthier products, good nutrition and healthy lifestyles.
Under the new initiative, the firms will also limit products shown in computer games to healthier choices, or incorporate healthy messages into the games.
The initiative also requires that food and beverage products are not advertised in elementary schools, that food companies do not engage in product placement in editorial and entertainment content, and that they reduce the use of licensed characters for promoting products that do not meet certain nutritional criteria.
These criteria will be based on established scientific and government standards, said the CBBB. Such standards include FDA-defined 'healthy' foods; products that meet the FDA or USDA criteria for claims of 'free', 'low', or 'reduced' calories, total fat, saturated fat, sodium or sugar; products that qualify for the USDA 'Healthier Schools Challenge'; principles addressing recommended consumption by children under 12 under USDA Dietary Guidelines and My Pyramid; and products representing portion-control options, such as 100-calorie packs.
The initiative, which aims to expand to include other food companies and advertisers, will be administered and monitored by the CBBB. If participating companies do not meet requirements, they may be expelled from the program and possibly be referred to regulatory authorities, such as the Federal Trade Commission.
"Self-regulation works best when backed by strong and effective accountability. We will closely monitor adherence to the participant commitments," said Steven Cole, CBBB president and CEO.
Parallel to the new initiative, the CBBB also announced the approval of "significant revisions" to the Self-Regulatory Guidelines for Children's Advertising, which will tighten the grip of the CBBB's Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU) over all industry sectors.
The new guidelines will strengthen CARU's guidance to food advertisers in a number of areas, such as clarifying that children's food advertising should not depict over-consumption or discourage healthy lifestyle or healthy dietary choices.
The guidelines also mean that CARU will be able to take action on advertising targeted to children that is 'unfair', in addition to advertising that is misleading. They will also specifically address 'blurring', or advertising that obscures the line between editorial content and advertising messages, as well as the use of commercial messages in interactive games.
However, the new developments have attracted criticism from some consumer groups, which say the changes remain inadequate to keep children healthy.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the guidelines fall short of what several companies, such as Kraft and Disney, are already doing.
Indeed, the pressure group said the announcement was "just the advertising industry playing defense (…) The only changes from the status quo in these guidelines occur at the fringes. Still, the overwhelming majority of food advertised at kids is going to be junk food. These foods can be as high in calories, trans fat, sugar, or sodium and as low in nutrients as companies please."
The group added that until stricter guidelines are in place, companies that market junk foods to kids should "expect more lawsuits" from health advocates.