An advertising industry group known as CARU is charged with monitoring television ads aimed at children.
The Washington Post Service
Unlike most people watching taped television shows, Tina Poturica doesn't zap through the commercials. Her job is monitoring promotions aimed at children under 12 to make sure they are accurate and age-appropriate.
One recent morning, Poturica -- remote control in one hand, pen and legal pad nearby -- zipped through five hours of taped afternoon shows from a cable cartoon network. She slowed the tape to study pitches for cereal, snacks and toys. An ad for a kid's fast-food meal caught her eye enough that she watched it three times.
It featured only the chain's highest-calorie products (double cheeseburger, fries, soda) and not some of its recently introduced, more-nutritious alternatives. ''Will a kid think they can only get the toy if they order the highest-calorie products?'' Poturica wondered. So she fired off a letter to the company, requesting that it feature some of the more healthful products in future ads.
When health professionals and consumer activists call for greater government oversight of ads and promotions aimed at kids because of growing levels of childhood obesity, the food and advertising industries point to Poturica's employer, the Children's Advertising Review Unit, which analyzes 1,000 TV commercials, 250 magazine ads and countless websites each month.
''Our self-regulatory system is an active cop on the beat,'' said Robert Liodice, president of the Association of National Advertisers, one of the three ad industry associations that, along with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, created the review unit CARU. The group's supporters note that in the past two years, advertisers complied with the unit's requests in all but six of 222 cases.
Critics say CARU, with a staff of six and a $650,000 annual budget, can't keep up with $15 billion in promotions that companies aim at kids each year.
They say the group's efforts are hindered by guidelines that are too narrow, enforcement powers that are too weak, and the basic conflict that it is an industry group. There are no consumer group representatives on the 25-member board, and some of the six academic board members have done consultation work for advertisers and major corporations.
The group was set up in 1974 after the Federal Trade Commission threatened to start regulating children's ads -- the main concerns at the time were sweetened cereals and vitamins -- if the industry didn't.
On paper, CARU's mission ''looks great,'' said Enola Aird, who has studied the unit as director of the Motherhood Project at a New York nonprofit. ''But it really doesn't work to protect children because there are so many loopholes.'' For one thing, she said, by the time the group files a complaint and gets an answer, many of the ads have already completed their run ''and they've already had their effect'' on children.
CARU ''says it is a watchdog, but it is empowered to do things so small you need a scanning electron microscope to see it,'' said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, founded by Ralph Nader to monitor advertising, particularly ads aimed at kids.
Aird and Ruskin cited one of the group's main limitations -- that it monitors ads but not the many other marketing techniques companies use. For example, CARU doesn't review corporate-sponsored ''advergaming,'' where kids can play online games featuring Twinkies, Cheetos or Life Savers. Nor does it monitor school promotions, such as fundraisers at Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants or contests sponsored by candy companies to raise money for schools.
Also outside the group's purview are special marketing events, such as Camp Geoffrey, the Toys R Us in-store summer activity program for 3- to 8-year-olds. So too are viral marketing campaigns, in which companies sponsor sleepovers or use the Internet to recruit kids to spread the good word about their products.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said CARU should more aggressively police food ads aimed at children to limit junk food ads. ''Their guidelines deal mostly with deception, but they don't deal with the nutritional qualities of food,'' she said.
CARU guidelines note that the appearance of a live or animated character such as SpongeBob SquarePants ''can significantly alter a child's perception of the product,'' but they do not restrict the use of these characters in either the ads or the products themselves. So such products as SpongeBob cereal, Shrek-colored M&M's and Scooby-Doo! crackers are proliferating on store shelves.
''If characters are all that powerful, they shouldn't be used at all,'' Wootan said.
Advertising officials are quick to rebut the critics. ''I challenge the critics to provide me with a direct and causal link between children's advertising and childhood obesity,'' Liodice said.
CARU Director Elizabeth Lascoutx said her group's purpose is 'to ensure that advertising directed to children is truthful, accurate and appropriate for its intended audience. It was never intended that CARU be the arbiter of what products should or should not be manufactured or sold, or to decide what foods are `healthy,' to tell parents or children what they should or shouldn't buy.''
Even so, the organization is now playing a more active role in promoting nutritional products. 'When they didn't have alternatives, we couldn't say, `You can't advertise that.' But now they have alternatives, and they should be showing these.''
CARU also is reviewing its definition of advertising to encompass more subtle promotions, such as those in advergames, to make sure kids know when a product is being pitched. Any change would require companies to more clearly delineate when a product is being promoted in online games and magazines.
The government has placed some restrictions on children's ads. The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasting networks to clearly delineate between program content and commercial messages on children's shows, and bars ads with character endorsements from running during or immediately adjacent to that character's show.
There are also limits on the amount of advertising that can be aired during children's shows: 10.5 minutes during an hour-long program on weekends, 12 minutes per hour show during the week. There are no such limits for adult shows.
More than 90 percent of the incidents in which CARU questions an ad, the questions are initiated by CARU staff. In the 14 years that Lascoutx has been at the group, she said, only 10 actions were prompted by complaints from competing firms, and fewer than 10 were sparked by consumers.
CARU's critics say that's because the organization doesn't aggressively publicize its existence; parents would file more complaints if they knew there was an advertising review unit and how to contact it. (CARU can be reached at 70 W. 36th St., 13th floor, New York, N.Y 10018, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In most of the challenged cases, companies agree to change ads, even if they disagree with the organization's concerns. But if companies refuse to comply, there's little the group can do.
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