Is Big Food Playing Games with Data Reported to Feds on Marketing to Children? A Q&A with ex-industry insider Bruce Bradley

Last week the Federal Trade Commission released its follow-up report on how the food industry markets to children. The media spin is mostly about reduced expenditures, which could be good thing. But is it for real? I asked Bruce Bradley, who worked for fifteen years as a marketer at companies like General Mills, Pillsbury, and Nabisco. He has a different interpretation of what’s going on.

MS: Do you think companies can be cagey about the data they provide to the federal government, even with subpoenas?

BB: These companies are masters about parsing and creating data to tell stories. They do it for Wall Street all the time. Since the first FTC report in 2008 they’ve become more sensitive to how they report and categorize spending so as to appear responsive to the issue.

MS: What about the data seems most fishy to you?

BB: Two points of data don’t make a trend: The FTC report is comparing 2006 to 2009—a pre-recession and post-recession period. Media costs went down after the recession hit. Manufacturers may have also cut spending overall to make their profit numbers. It would be more relevant to see this data indexed vs. total media/consumer spending, but regardless, you can’t draw solid conclusions from a couple of data points that are easily manipulated.

MS: How could food companies hide kid-marketing spending data?

BB: Since manufacturers know they are being watched, I’m sure they are just shifting brands from being classified as “kids” brands to “adult” brands. For food manufacturers, it doesn’t require much to “reclassify” an ad but still reach a lot of kids, since so much media is viewed by both adults and children.

MS: What’s your reaction to the shift from TV to online marketing?

BB: It’s no surprise that total spending is down driven by TV advertising. Newer forms of media tend to be much more targeted and efficient than TV advertising. If the FTC wants to get better data, it should subpoena information like ad impressions for kids and teens across all forms of media (TV, web, mobile, gaming, etc.). Also, food companies have become extremely savvy at measuring the ROI [return on investment] of their advertising and promotion efforts. Data like this would be much more revealing than these misleading, top-line numbers.

MS: What’s your reaction to the admission in the FTC report that while overall spending on toy premiums are down, “cross-promotional partners, such as a toy or media company, often covered the premium costs…. the true value of youth-directed premiums likely was substantially higher than the reported expenditures”?

BB: Since Big Food knows more eyes are watching, I’m sure they’re cutting more deals where these expenses are born by others so as to give the appearance of reduced spending. That the incidence of TV/movie cross-promotions increased but total spending decreased is just more proof that Big Food marketers haven’t changed their behavior. They’ve just come up with new ways of accounting or are using new, more efficient/highly targeted media that makes their top-line spending seem like they are playing nice. Again, these companies are very smart about how to appear good, but still get what they want in a totally different, invisible way.

MS: What do you make of FTC’s spin that companies are improving with nutrition?

BB: I don’t find the nutritional quality of foods surprising. But let’s face it, are these foods really healthy foods or have they been doctored up to be given one healthier aspect? Just because Froot Loops has fiber added does NOT make it a healthy food. Candy with fiber is still candy!

If Big Food companies were truly concerned, they’d be spending money marketing truly healthy items like fresh fruit and fresh vegetables to kids, but they aren’t. They’re marketing the same highly processed foods that have been sprinkled with a gram or two of some highly processed additives that give their food the appearance of being healthier.

The beverage category’s reporting also concerns me. Calorie counts don’t equal healthy. Especially as you reach the teenage years, the consumption of diet drinks by girls is skyrocketing. Is increased consumption of diet sodas considered a success? I don’t think so. In my opinion if we are going to effectively measure what success looks like in beverages, we are going to have to come up with some new criteria other than calories.

MS: What’s your take on the improved QSR aka fast food data?

BB: I’d have to dig into the QSR/fast food information more to see if they’re rigging the reporting. My guess is that McDonald’s is reporting the calories for Happy Meals with apple slices when the fact is most customers are still getting the fries. It’s also very easy to substitute a diet coke in a teen ad or a smaller portion (small fry vs. medium or large fry) and claim they’ve made “progress.”

MS: What’s your overall reaction to this report?

BB: The bottom line is you can get data to tell almost any story you want. The food industry wants to show they are making progress, so they’ve created a way to present data that makes it look like progress is being made. Perhaps with eyes watching, some progress has been made, but it is minimal at best.

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