About 15 companies have submitted voluntary pledges to the Initiative. Some major nonparticipants include Yum Brands (including Taco Bell and Pizza Hut) and Cadbury Schweppes (including soft drinks such as Dr. Pepper and Snapple). Because perhaps 1/3 of all food advertising is by nonparticipating companies, competitive pressure could harm companies that voluntarily try to make real substantial improvements.
The Initiative has fairly lenient minimum standards for the pledges, though some companies exceed the minimum standards voluntarily. The Initiative's standards say 50% of the company's "advertising aimed at children under 12 years of age" must "further the goal of promoting healthy dietary choices and healthy lifestyles." This standard can be achieved either by accompanying the marketing message with physical activity messages, or by advertising foods that qualify as "better for you."
It is not clear that physical activity advertising really counterbalances advertising for unhealthy foods. New research published last month in the journal Obesity found that activity messaging can have the paradoxical effect of increasing food consumption. People who see these messages seem to behave as if they were hungry after exercise ... but without the actual exercise.
The standards for foods that qualify as "better-for-you" frequently have an "either/or" character that makes them easy to meet. For example, a product can be low in sugar, or low in fat, or low in salt, but it need not meet all of these criteria together. Foods on the list of "better-for-you" items that pass muster with the Initiative include: Lunchables Max’d Out Pepperoni Pizza, Cap'n Crunch, and Gatorade Thirst Quenchers (which are said to be "better-for-you" despite getting all their calories from sugar because they provide a rehydration benefit).
The companies choose their own standards for defining "advertising toward children under age 12." Here are some examples from my recent review:
Only two pledges use the same standard as the 2008 FTC report, which stipulated settings where more than 30% of the audience is children under the age of 12 years. Some pledges use a lenient standard of 50% of the audience. The definitions in other pledges are so imprecise and complex that it is difficult to determine what advertising is covered. The Campbell Soup Company proposed the following standard: “audience composition that is approximately two times the proportion of that age group in the general population (composition index of 200 or more)”. Pepsico listed five different non-quantitative factors, specifying “none of which shall be controlling."