The debate over television advertising of sugary foods directed at children intensified yesterday with an attack by the American Dental Association on Kellogg Co.'s current nationwide ad campaign for their pre-sweetened cereals.

"Advertising which suggests that sugary foods do not contribute substantially to dental decay is seriously misleading to the public," the ADA statement released yesterday charged. It said that current Kellogg advertising "tends to obscure the essential truth that children consume far too much sugar."

Kellogg president William E. LaMothe later disputed the ADA's assertion that the Kellogg ads may be misleading and said the company is considering legal action against the ADA because of its "false statements."

"The purpose of the advertisement was to get before the American people some accurate information on ready-sweetened cereals," he said. Clinical studies turned up "no relationship" between the consumption of ready-to-eat cereals and tooth decay in children, he said.

"The ADA apparently chose to ignore the results of these studies in favor of their biased opinions regarding these nutritious products," he charged.

The ADA statement suggested that pre-sweetened cereals are eaten not only at breakfast but also as snacks. It also noted that nutritionists have raised "serious questions about the nutritional value of foods, such as pre-sweetened cereals, which may be as much as 50 per cent sugar."

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The association said it conducts a massive dental health program to educate parents and children on the dangers of sweets but that television public-service messages urging a cut-down of sweets go unnoticed among the large number of ads for high-sugar products.

While the ADA and Kellogg's were trading charges, members of the Federal Trade Commission, which has authority to stop deceptive and misleading advertising as well as unfair trade practices, were watching some of those ads. Through the use of a dozen television commercials shown on a monitor at an open commission meeting, Dr. Kenneth O'Bryan, a professor of applied psychology at the University of Toronto, sought to explain to the commission what is known about the way children receive and process information from television commercials and how the ads use techniques to get their messages across. In the case of the ads for cereals, candies, other foods and toys, the message was that the products were "fun" and "good." They are effective in getting the child to want them, he said.

In contrast, he said, "a public-service ad generally sends the kid to the john."

The information O'Bryan presented was collected in laboratories and studies in homes (using eye-movement technology and interviews), at the Ontario Educational Communications Authority (where he is director of special-research projects) and at the Child Research Laboratory of the University of Toronto.

The FTC is considering petitions from Action for Children's Television and the Center for Science in the Public Interest that raise questions about television advertising aimed at children in general and advertising for sugared foods specifically.

FTC chairman Michael Pertschuk said yesterday the commission expects to receive recommendations from the staff in two weeks and will discuss the staff proposals at an open meeting sometime after Jan. 1.