Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Consumer Law and Policy Blog

Here is Public Citizen's Consumer Law and Policy Blog. Along with good coverage of lending practices and consumer legal rights, one finds CSPI's Stephen Gardner's report last week about the Federal Trade Commission's bold request for information from companies about marketing to children. Here is an excerpt, but you should read the full post (complete with Gardner's Texas aphorisms):
On October 25, the Federal Trade Commission announced its plans (.pdf) to issue "compulsory process orders to major food and beverage manufacturers and quick service restaurant companies in order to obtain information from those companies concerning, among other things, their marketing activities and expenditures targeted toward children and adolescents."

This is a significant development in the regulation of food marketing to kids. Of course, the proof of this pudding is in the eating, so it remains to be seen what the FTC does with the information it obtains.

In 2005, Congress directed the FTC "to prepare a report on food industry marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescent." Pub. L. No. 109-108.

In March 2006, the FTC asked nicely for information, but the food industry failed to provide "information, especially empirical data, on the nature and extent of marketing activities and expenditures targeted to children and adolescents."

My organization, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), filed a comment in response to the March 2006 proposal (.pdf), urging the FTC to obtain "information on the nutritional quality of products marketed to children."

The FTC now proposes to do something akin to that — to demand information from about 50 companies about food advertised to children, including fast foods, breakfast cereals, snack foods, candy and gum, carbonated and noncarbonated beverages, frozen and chilled desserts, prepared meals, and dairy products, including milk and yogurt. Specifically, the FTC announced its need to obtain data about:
  • The types of foods marketed to children and adolescents.
  • The media techniques used to market products to children and adolescents.
  • The amounts spent to market to children and adolescents.
  • The amount of commercial advertising time that results from this marketing.
The FTC continued talking tough, cautioning that anyone who destroyed responsive data might be prosecuted criminally. But at the same time, it indicated a willingness to second-guess itself, by asking for comments "whether the proposed collections of information are necessary for the proper performance of the functions of the FTC, including whether the information will have practical utility."

Since the FTC in the New Millennium has moved from being the "National Nanny" (as it was called in the 70's) to the Chicken Guarding the Foxhole, one must wonder what engendered this tough squawk from the FTC. It might be the desire to come to the rescue of the food industry, to prevent it being sued, in light of recent developments.
This effort to find out what the marketers know about the effectiveness of their marketing seems politically astute, and better information is likely to improve the national discussion of policy responses.