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Minding Nemo

Pitches to Kids Feed Debate About a Watchdog

By Caroline E. Mayer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page F01

NEW YORK -- Unlike most people watching taped television shows, Tina Poturica doesn't zap through the commercials. In fact, the ads are all she looks at because her job is monitoring promotions aimed at children under 12 to make sure they are accurate and age-appropriate.

One recent morning, Poturica -- remote control in one hand, pen and legal pad nearby -- zipped through five hours of taped afternoon shows from a cable cartoon network. She slowed the tape to study pitches for cereal, snacks and toys. A new ad for a kid's fast-food meal caught her eye enough that she watched it three times. It featured only the chain's highest-calorie products (double cheeseburger, fries, soda) and not some of its recently introduced, more-nutritious alternatives. "Will a kid think they can only get the toy if they order the highest-calorie products?" Poturica wondered. So she fired off a letter to the company, requesting that it feature some of the more healthful products in future ads.

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When health professionals and consumer activists call for greater government oversight of ads and promotions aimed at kids because of growing levels of childhood obesity, the food and advertising industries point to Poturica's employer, the Children's Advertising Review Unit, which analyzes 1,000 TV commercials, 250 magazine ads and countless Web sites each month.

"Our self-regulatory system is an active cop on the beat," said Robert D. Liodice, president of the Association of National Advertisers Inc., one of the three ad industry associations that, along with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, created the review unit, CARU. The group's supporters note that in the past two years, advertisers complied with the unit's requests in all but six of 222 cases.

Critics say CARU, with a staff of six and a $650,000 annual budget, can't keep up with $15 billion in promotions that companies aim at kids each year.

They say the group's efforts are hindered by guidelines that are too narrow, enforcement powers that are too weak, and the basic conflict that it is an industry group. There are no consumer group representatives on the 25-member board, and some of the six academic board members have consulted for advertisers and major corporations.

The group was set up in 1974 after the Federal Trade Commission threatened to start regulating children's ads -- the main concerns at the time were sweetened cereals and vitamins -- if the industry didn't.

On paper, CARU's mission "looks great," said Enola Aird, who has studied the unit as director of the Motherhood Project at a New York nonprofit. "But it really doesn't work to protect children because there are so many loopholes." For one thing, she said, by the time the group files a complaint and gets an answer, many of the ads have already completed their run "and they've already had their effect" on children.

CARU "says it is a watchdog, but it is empowered to do things so small you need a scanning electron microscope to see it," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, founded by Ralph Nader to monitor advertising, particularly ads aimed at kids.

Aird and Ruskin cited one of the group's main limitations -- that it monitors ads, but not the many other marketing techniques companies use. For example, CARU doesn't review corporate-sponsored "advergaming," where kids can play online games featuring Twinkies, Cheetos or Life Savers. Nor does it monitor school promotions, such as fundraisers at Chuck E. Cheese's restaurants or contests sponsored by candy companies to raise money for schools.

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