WASHINGTON DC: A group of 11 major US food manufacturers - among them PepsiCo, McDonald's and General Mills - have unveiled a package of much-vaunted changes in the way they advertise their products to children.

The move to adopt new voluntary rules for marketing to under-12s bids to quieten the clamor for legislation as the US battles with a childhood obesity epidemic. It was announced Wednesday at a Federal Trade Commission event.

Last week the publication of a government study by the Federal Communications Commission and a special task force was postponed until September to allow the food companies to put forward their "dramatic statements" [WARC News: 09-Jul-07].

Despite high expectations, 'junk food' promotion will not undergo any seismic shifts.

The companies have agreed to stop advertising to youngsters under the age of 12 products that do not meet certain nutritional standards. Some, like Coca-Cola, have already withdrawn all such commercials or are currently doing so.

Others, like General Mills, say they will withdraw them over the next year or so, while some have agreed to extend their self-imposed bans to radio, print and online ads.

However, a loophole allows the firms to continue marketing products during television programs and other media that are considered to cater to families rather than just children.

So, for example SpongeBob SquarePants may be off-limits but advertising during American Idol, with its much bigger kids' audiences, is not.

Nevertheless, lobbyist Margo Wootan from the Center for Science in the Public Interest welcomed the move, saying: "It's not the end of the journey but it's a good way down the road."

While Dan Jaffe, evp of the Association of National Advertisers says: "We are hopeful that people will look at this and say that the community has done a substantial, enormous amount of work."

The companies have also agreed to allow the Council of Better Business Bureaus and its Children's Advertising Review Unit to scrutinize their marketing plans and report publicly.

In addition, they have pledged to limit the use of cartoon characters in promotions. Product placement, ads for food and beverages in schools, and interactive ads will come under the new rules and will be examined in greater detail by the FTC during the coming months.

Data sourced from New York Times; additional content by WARC staff