Eleven big US producers of chocolates, fries, sodas and sugary cereals pledged to cut back advertising aimed a kids to help fight child obesity.
To head off being forced off the air by law, major corporations like McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Mars and Kellogg said this week they will pare back advertisements during television programming where the audiences are over half children under 12 years old.
Candy maker Cadbury Adams said it would stop running ads for its super-sweet bubble gums beginning March 2008. Soft drink and fast-food conglomerate Pepsico said it would limit its under-12-directed pitches to its sports-rehydration drink Gatorade and its low-fat Baked Cheetos snacks.
The initiative was promoted by the US Federal Trade Commission and the Council of Better Business Bureaus (BBB), a self-regulating business group, as sentiment against junk food in the United States rises and Americans' waistlines bulge.
The others in the group include Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Hershey Foods, Kraft Foods and Unilever.
Studies show a steep increase in overweight children, with 20 percent measuring as obese, three times the level of 40 years ago.
Critics of the fatty and sugary foods link the problem to publicity. Children get hit with some 3,000 advertisements a day from television, the Internet, magazines and even on school buses, said one recent study by US pediatricians.
On children-targeted TV programming, one third of advertising time is given to spots pushing sweets, one third to breakfast cereals -- which are often highly sweetened -- and nine percent to fast foods.
The ads are important for businesses: children have considerable influence in buying the snacks and cereals worth some 500 billion dollars a year.
Under the BBB initiative the companies are setting their own collective standard for what is and is not allowed in advertisements, focusing on the nutritional content of the foods advertised and what is "better for you."
"It's a great step forward for companies to be tying advertising decisions to nutrition standards for advertising to children," said Elaine Kolish, director of the BBB initiative.
"For example, these commitments effectively limit participating companies' advertising of snack foods and other food products to those that meet new or existing better-for-you nutrition criteria, and limit the advertising of cereals to those with 12 or fewer grams of sugar per serving," Kolish said.
"We want to be part of the solution, and we want to help families make good choices," said Chris Shea, senior vice president of General Mills, one of the country's largest breakfast-cereal makers.
But consumers' organizations said they were not impressed by the self-imposed guidelines of the group.
"Each company set its own standards. What I expect will happen is that companies will reformulate products to meet these standards," predicted Susan Linn, cofounder of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.
She said, for example, that they might cut a 13 grams of sugar product to 12 grams just to be able to advertise them.
"This is going to be very difficult to monitor," she told AFP.
Lin also said that companies will likely continue to pitch their less-healthful brands on hit shows like "American Idol," which have a significantly large, while less than 50 percent, under-12 audience.
London-based Consumers International meanwhile said the company-by-company approach "can only lead to confusion for parents."
The group asked why the companies were not applying the measures to advertising outside the United States.
"These half measures by multinational companies only serve to reinforce the need for mandatory action on an international level," the group said.