WASHINGTON DC: Ten of America's largest food and drinks manufacturers have pledged to devote at least half their targeted children's advertising to the promotion of healthy food or physical activity.

The firms, including McDonald's, PepsiCo and Kraft, have also agreed not to advertise in elementary schools and to reduce the use of cartoon or movie characters to promote 'junk foods'.

The other companies involved in the voluntary scheme are Coca-Cola, Cadbury Schweppes, The Campbell Soup Company, General Mills, Hershey, Kellogg and Unilever.

They say they will develop individual plans to address the new guidelines during the next six to nine months. Those plans will then be posted online and enforced by the Council for Better Business Bureaus.

In practice, however, the changes will be less than dramatic - a case of the emperor's new clothes, according to infuriated children's advocacy groups which have been demanding legislation to curb food marketing.

Says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest: "If a healthy lifestyle message means that Ronald McDonald is pedalling a bike while peddling junk food, that message still does more harm than good."

He hopes the Democrats now in charge of the US Congress will take a "fresh look" at industry practices.

The food companies have defended their stance: McDonald's marketing director Bill Lemar ripostes: "The key point for us is our advertising to kids specifically has been and will continued to be focused on foods such as nuggets, apple dippers and milk, which meets almost any scientific guideline."

And Deborah Platt Majoras, the Federal Trade Commission chairwoman, calls the guidelines "important steps".

She adds: "The FTC works closely with a number of self-regulatory programs and will be watching closely to see whether this program results in meaningful improvements in food and beverage advertising to children."

Recent studies have categorized around 16% of US children as obese and food marketing has been blamed in large part for the phenomenon.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff