FTC Subpoenas Chuck E. Cheese

Remember the old days when commercials featured laughing and smiling parents in the foreground, holding up a bottle of vitamins or canned food, while their kids played in the background.  These commercials would always end the same, with the parents being attacked with hugs and everyone giggling.  The advertising message here was geared towards parents, presumably hard working folks, who wanted to spend more time with their children.  The other night, I caught a commercial featuring a “homestyle” tasting macaroni and cheese product, and it wasn’t the mother who wanted to spend more time with her kids instead of cooking that was selling the product.  It was her child, holding up the bag and speaking right into the camera.

The message here is simple; kids have a lot of power as to where the money in a household goes. Marketing strategies are being focused towards children, and even though they don’t hold the purse strings, they can pester and nag their way to getting what they want.

There is no better example of this than in the marketing of food and snacks to children.  Fast food advertisers have done this for a long time, using things like toys, kids clubs, and slogans to entice the average youth to prefer their company to another. There are laws on the books that prohibit the advertisement of certain substances (like tobacco and alcohol) to children, but aside from that, the regulations are pretty much “self” induced.

Last week, the FTC issued to subpoenas to some of the biggest names in brands out there, including Yum Brands!, (Owners of the KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut chains), IHOP, and even Chuck E. Cheese. Spokeswoman for the FTC states that it’s simply a follow up for the 2008 report urging certain companies who market to children and teens to be more responsible for the advertising message they are sending. Those who disagree with the ruling speculate this is the first step to Congressional hearings and federal regulations.

 This is happening on the heels of nutrition watch dog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, threatening a lawsuit against McDonald’s over Happy Meal toys. The CSPI alleges that the toys violate consumer protection acts and as of June 22, 2010, issued a letter to the McDonald’s Corporation threatening suit if they did not pull the toys within 30 days. 

The CSPI issued this call to action in July 2010 urging the end of “junk food marketing to kids”. In the call to action, the group states that they worked with Senator Tom Harking (D-Iowa) to set up meetings with the FTC, the CDC, and the Department of Agriculture to “develop model nutrition standards for food marketing to children”. The FTC “naughty list” was issued at the end of August. Doesn’t that time line seem a little off to you?

The question is – can the government tell you who you can and cannot market to without regulating the entire industry. Could the FTC subpoena be a step towards the regulation of fast food advertisers to limit the manner in which they market to children? Is this the first step towards Ronald McDonald and Chuck E. Cheese suffering a similar fate as Joe the Camel and Spuds MacKenzie?

How do you feel about the possible regulation of advertisements towards children and does it set a larger precedent for similar regulations in other industries?