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Food marketers spend less than previously thought to target kids, but it’s still too much for many critics

One of the most memorable scenes in Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story” occurs when Ralph Parker uses his Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring to unscramble Annie’s message to her loyal fans.

Ralph anxiously prints each letter until the message is revealed: “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” He tosses the decoder down in disgust and mutters, “A crummy commercial.”

Except for Depression-era consumers, who were raised to believe they should never throw anything away, no one uses a secret decoder ring to receive messages anymore. The young use e-mail, text messaging and mobile phones to send and receive messages. They still spend time watching TV and, of course, they’re parked at their computers visiting websites.

For some politicians and watchdog groups, those media still contain too many crummy commercials targeting children.

In July the Federal Trade Commission released a report on ad expenditures by food and beverage marketers. The report said marketers spent $1.6 billion in 2006 targeting children under 12 and adolescents 12 to 17 years old, a figure dramatically lower than the $10 billion estimate long thought to be what they spent. Quick-service restaurants, carbonated beverages and breakfast foods accounted for $1.02 billion of the total amount spent on marketing to youths.

The report is based on marketing data that the FTC required restaurant chains, cereal companies and other marketers to submit for the study. McDonald’s Corp., CEC Entertainment, Yum! Brands Inc., Wendy’s International Inc. and Burger King Holdings Inc. were among the 44 companies required to submit data on how they market to children and adolescents.

The FTC report applauds the voluntary efforts of food and beverage marketers to change the way they market to youths under 17, but it does say that “there is room for improvement” in adhering to “meaningful nutrition-based standards” when they target children under 12.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has led the fight to restrict advertising to kids, and he was predictably harsher in commenting on the report and the self-regulation efforts of food marketers. In a statement, he acknowledged that companies had pledged to market more healthful options to kids, but he added, “If these programs do not produce significant changes, government will have to act.”

That would be just fine for the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which is sponsoring an online petition drive to insert planks in the Democratic and Republican party platforms to protect children “from the excesses of the marketing-driven media industry.”

Susan Linn, director of the organization, is firmly against food and beverage marketers policing themselves, calling it a “myth that self-regulation can effectively rein in an industry whose profits rely on commercializing childhood.”

The Center for Digital Democracy would like to see limits placed on how marketers target kids through text messages, online video episodes, viral campaigns and YouTube videos.

As examples of digital campaigns targeting a younger demographic, a study last year by the center pointed to a McDonald’s text-message campaign in California that offered free McFlurry desserts and Wendy’s “commercials masquerading as videos” on YouTube, particularly “Molly Grows Up,” which showed a young girl ordering her first Junior Bacon Cheeseburger and Frosty.

The FTC report was not as harsh as I had expected. It urged marketers to use all ad vehicles, not just TV, to advertise more nutritious menu offerings and to restrict the licensing of media and entertainment characters to more healthful foods and beverages.

Despite Harkin’s tough talk, it’s not likely that Congress will impose advertising restrictions anytime soon, or even take up the matter. But as long as Harkin and the advocacy groups are around, food marketers have to continue their self-regulations to prevent the government from imposing its own.

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