Paul Holmes

CSPI guidelines will help - not hinder - food marketers' efforts in ongoing obesity battle

CSPI guidelines will help - not hinder - food marketers' efforts in ongoing obesity battle

It was interesting to note the divergent response to a recent announcement from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) offering guidelines for responsible food marketing to children.

Marshall Manson, SVP of public affairs for the Center for Individual Freedom (CIF), shot back quickly with a response that seemed out of proportion to the CSPI's suggestions, describing them as part of "a broad attack on individual freedom" and suggesting that the CSPI would "restrict free speech and our freedom to choose what we eat and drink while dramatically expanding government interference in our lives. Their proposals reveal an underlying belief that Americans cannot make responsible choices about what to eat and drink."

Those who have read my past columns know that I'm a believer in informed consent. But the whole point of the CSPI's campaign is that children - at least the very youngest of them - aren't equipped to make responsible choices - not a particularly radical suggestion. There's plenty of research to suggest that kids are influenced by food marketing and that it's a factor in poor dietary choices and the rise in obesity. You needn't be a "radically liberal interest group" to hope for signs of responsibility from marketers.

Moreover, the CSPI's announcement doesn't call for new regulation. In fact, the CSPI says it sent its guidelines to "officials at major food companies, restaurants, TV networks, TV stations in the 50 largest markets, movie studios, supermarkets, and children's magazines and urged them to comply on a voluntary basis."

It's hard to see how asking food companies to moderate their marketing practice is an attack on anyone's freedom.

Luckily, the CIF doesn't speak for marketers, and the response from groups that do was considerably more temperate. The American Beverage Association, for example, said in a statement that its members were "committed to marketing and advertising their products responsibly," following the guidelines of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, and generally pursuing a self-regulatory approach.

"Childhood obesity is a serious problem," says the association, "and our industry is offering products, policies, and programs to help parents and educators address the obesity issue."

A cynic might wonder whether industry is being circumspect and responsible in its official response while allowing the CIF to make more vitriolic attacks, labeling advocates of less aggressive marketing tactics as extremists and kooks. (The usually helpful doesn't have any information on the group's funding.)

If so, it should understand that the calm and rational response is much more effective in acknowledging what most parents consider to be a genuine problem, and convincing them that industry is interested in being part of the solution.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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