The late sociologist Robert Nisbet famously observed that the ever-expanding influence of our federal, centralized government always comes at the expense of smaller voluntary associations. By both absorbing the function and usurping the authority of private intermediary institutions, the State is better able to consolidate its power and control over our everyday lives. As Nisbet explained, this process doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually Leviathan develops an irresistible inertia all its own.
If he were alive today, Nisbet might be interested to learn about the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) latest voluntary guidelines on marketing food to children. In a nutshell, the FTC guidelines advocate sweeping nutritional standards and marketing restrictions on the food and beverage industries. Albeit a well-intentioned effort to combat the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic, the proposal would, among other things, severely hinder a company’s ability to market its products to children and adolescents under the age of 18. What is less widely known, however, are the unintended ways these guidelines would hamper or eliminate the many worthwhile philanthropic and community activities that have long been sponsored by the food and beverage industry.
The new proposal defines “marketing” so broadly as to encompass virtually every conceivable form of promotional activity. The definitions found in the FTC’s proposal include 20 different categories of marketing, ranging from Internet, television, radio, and print advertising to packaging and point-of-purchase displays as well as product placement in movies, videos, and video games. Also included in the definition of marketing are “sponsorship of events, sports teams, and individual athletes” and “philanthropic activity.”
On their face, the guidelines expressly cover sponsorships of, and donations to, philanthropic organizations, programs, or events that involve the use of a trade name, brand, or logo in connection with the sponsorship or donation. Unless a company’s trade name represents only products that meet the FTC’s approved nutrition criteria, such a company would not be able to include its name “in connection with” charities, clubs, public parks, activities, community programs, or other events that benefit children or adolescents. Some company trade names or brand names may include products that do not satisfy the FTC’s nutritional principles, and thus neither the company nor its trade name could be used in connection with philanthropic activities.
Ironically, the FTC’s proposed guidelines would jeopardize countless public service programs and philanthropic initiatives for children and teens, especially if those campaigns feature company names, brands, or logos (as most do). A small sampling of some of the philanthropic endeavors that would be called into question under the FTC’s proposed definition of “philanthropic marketing” includes:
The Dannon Company funds Dannon Next Generation Nutrition Grants, which in turn funds nonprofit organizations that provide community-based childhood nutrition education programs. To date, Dannon has awarded over $580,000 in grants to programs that help children develop life-long habits for good nutrition and exercise. But since Dannon is a trade name, this program would be affected by the FTC guidelines.
Campbell Soup Company’s Pepperidge Farm brand has developed Fishful Thinking, a program that provides parents resources to help their children develop emotional well-being. The Fishful Thinking Internet website provides tips for parents to help keep their kids active. Because the website features animated characters and images of product packaging, it could fall under the FTC’s definition of marketing.
Kellogg Company provides monetary grants to Action for Healthy Kids, a program that provides resources and assistance to foster participation in school breakfast programs in an effort to help combat childhood obesity. The program likely falls under the FTC’s definition of in-school or philanthropic marketing activities, which cover the use of trade names.
Sara Lee Corporation funds the Sara Lee Foundation, which in turn supports the Chicago-based Robert Crown Center for Education’s FIT Curriculum, a leading innovator of ideas and projects for nutrition education, including physical activities to help attain energy balance. The FIT Curriculum is distributed in classrooms and on the Internet. Because the Internet site features an animated character and the Sara Lee Foundation logo, it likely falls under the FTC’s definition of Internet marketing.
Ronald McDonald House Charities has provided a “home away from home” for the parents and families of hospitalized children since 1974. In addition, Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles operate in vulnerable communities to provide cost-effective, high-quality medical, dental, and health education services to thousands of children. McDonald’s raises money for this charity by way of food-related promotions. These promotions would be prohibited unless the company’s food met the IWG’s nutritional criteria.
As these examples reveal, the FTC’s proposed marketing definitions are extraordinarily broad, such that many philanthropic activities sponsored by food and beverage companies or their brands would be significantly curtailed and, in some cases, eliminated. But these guidelines are also highly counterproductive to the cause of children’s health, since they would hurt funding for the very philanthropies and initiatives that are designed to improve children’s health and well-being. Many industry leaders and policy analysis have noted that the cost of acquiescing to the FTC’s proposal would be measured in the billions of dollars. But any cost/benefit analysis of the impact of these guidelines must also include the very real threat posed to philanthropy. If measured through the eyes of the countless children these charitable initiatives help, the cost is immeasurable.