Kids Cereal Maker Flouts Ad Rules
By Michele Simon and Ellen Fried

Published, June 25, 2021 on InformedEating.org

Long gone are the days of mom’s oatmeal for breakfast. With products like Reese's Puffs and Oreo’s O’s now passing for breakfast food, it’s difficult to distinguish the cereal aisle from a candy store. Meanwhile, as public health experts sound the alarm over rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, cereal manufacturers find themselves increasingly on the defensive.

Cereal giant General Mills has its own solution. Last week, the company announced a new children's television advertising campaign called Choose Breakfast (www.choosebreakfast.com), in order to “communicate the benefits of breakfast to children.” While General Mills attempts to cloak the campaign with public service respectability by dubbing it “non-branded,” the 10-second spots will be paired with 20-second spots for the company’s kid-oriented cereals including Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Trix. Adding bang to its buck, the company’s popular mascots such as the Trix rabbit and Lucky Charms leprechaun will tout physical activity on cereal boxes, presumably to work off all that sugar.

Fox in Bed with the Hens

The self-regulatory watchdog group for advertising aimed at children is the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, or CARU. Its job is to identify and request the removal of ads that appeal to a kid’s sense of fantasy, for example, where a bowlful of cereal transforms a child into a super-strong, super-smart, superhero. Yet all three of the General Mills spots depict that exact scenario: a young girl who has eaten breakfast is able to escape danger with lightening speed in contrast to a sluggish non-breakfast eater; a young boy outruns and outmaneuvers an adult thief and credits his breakfast; and another young boy prepares to enter a boxing ring to face a menacing adult opponent - but only after eating his breakfast. Not coincidentally, all three spots depict breakfast as including a nice big bowl of cereal—non-branded, of course.

With these spots coming on the heels of commercials for the likes of Cocoa Puffs, it doesn’t take a great leap of logic to assume that kids will associate these behaviors with eating cereal - and not just any cereal, but General Mills brands. How can children possibly be expected to distinguish between a Trix commercial and the supposed public service plug? Yet instead of jumping into action to banish the ads, CARU has jumped right into bed with General Mills by anointing their campaign. The company deftly sought pre-approval and got even more.

CARU director Elizabeth Lascoutx had nothing but praise for General Mills, quoted in the company’s press release: “Ensuring that positive, non-branded health messages like Choose Breakfast are being delivered to children is not only responsible, but commendable." Either she didn’t see the ads, didn’t know they were being corrupted by General Mills branded spots or isn’t familiar with the guidelines of the agency she directs, none of which is acceptable for an  organization charged with protecting our children from unscrupulous advertisers. 

Federal Spotlight on Self-Regulation

Partly as a result of pressure from child advocates, the Federal Trade Commission will be holding a workshop on food marketing to children next month. CARU was created largely in response to a similar outcry for stronger government regulation of advertising aimed at children some thirty years ago, a time when advertising seems primitive compared to today’s sophisticated onslaught. Clearly, CARU has failed miserably in its charge.

The focus of the July fact finding is on the effectiveness of industry self-regulation (as opposed to increased government oversight), since the Bush Administration and Congress aren’t about to interfere with corporate profits. Indeed, FTC Chairwoman Deborah Platt Majoras is not hiding where she stands, which is decidedly with food companies and advertising agencies. Last month, at a conference sponsored by food industry lawyers, she outlined the purpose of the upcoming workshop: “I want to be clear, this is not the first step toward new government regulations to ban or restrict children’s food advertising and marketing.” She went on at great length to extol the benefits of self-regulation, which is exactly what the food industry prefers. This is an odd stance to say the least for an agency whose motto is “For the Consumer.” After all, if FTC won’t kick the fox out of the henhouse, who will?


Michele Simon directs the Center for Informed Food Choices and is writing a book about food industry lobbying. Ellen Fried teaches food law at New York University.