Self-regulation is the voluntary system of oversight that companies create for themselves to avoid having the government "meddling" in their business practices. In making the case for this approach, food makers insist that they can be trusted to police themselves and behave as "responsible corporate citizens" -- even when it comes to controversial issues such as junk food marketing to children. Self-appointed corporate guardians decide what's best, determining for themselves what their nutrition guidelines will be, which of their products are deemed "healthy," and how those allegedly healthier products get marketed. Because self-regulation is by definition voluntary, companies can decide to shift gears at any time based on external economic pressures. 
Major food companies have promised for years to do better in regards to marketing to children and in creating healthier products. Since 2005, food companies have been describing their voluntary, self-regulatory guidelines for marketing to children as "pledges," which are coordinated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB). The pledges are part of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a program created by CBBB and major food and drink companies in 2006 to shift "child-directed advertising emphasis to better-for-you foods and beverages." In making their pledges, each company sets its own nutritional criteria for what products are acceptable to market to children, though the CBBB says they must be consistent with established scientific or government nutritional standards.
McDonald's pledge, for example, includes the promise that "McDonald's will limit the use of third-party licensed characters in paid advertising primarily directed to children under 12 to the promotion of healthy dietary choices. The company will also limit its use of third-party licensed characters on company owned websites to the promotion of healthy dietary choices or healthy lifestyle messages."  McDonald's most successful kid-friendly marketing device is the Happy Meal, which is often used as a vehicle to promote the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie, aka "third party licensed characters." The word "primarily" in the pledge is not defined so any marketing where 50 percent of the target audience includes those over age 12 could be exempt from the rule. McDonald's also gets to define for itself what it means by "healthy dietary choices," a catchphrase that the food industry loves to use to make companies sound caring.
In November 2008, 14 companies, none of which are in the healthy food business, had filed accepted pledges with the Council of Better Business Bureaus, including Burger King, General Mills, Kellogg, PepsiCo, ConAgra Foods, and Nestle. Pledges help to quell calls for legally enforceable statutes and regulations, yet some major companies have so far refused to participate, including Cadbury Schweppes and Yum Brands (owners of Taco Bell and KFC). Nestle announced its participation in July 2008 but so far has dragged its feet in producing the details of a pledge.
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Related SourceWatch articles
- Michele Simon, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back (Nation Books, 2006) pg 10-13, 140, 329
- CBBB "Changing the Landscape of Food and Beverage Advertising: The Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative in Action" December 2007
- McDonald's Corporate Social Responsibility Blog "Four Corporate Responsibility Reports...Four Lessons Learned," October 23, 2008
- Michele Simon "FTC Hands Kids Over to Junk Food Marketers, Defying Global Principles" Daily Kos (August 18, 2008)
- Company Pledges
- Council of Better Business Bureaus "BBB issues progress report on Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative, announces Nestlé USA as new participant: Major U.S. Food and Beverage Companies Comply With Pledges On Kids’ Advertising" July 29, 2008