Interview with Cara Wilking, senior staff attorney, Public Health Advocacy Institute

For this installment of Ask a Food Lawyer, we profile Cara Wilking, senior staff attorney with the Public Health Advocacy Institute, at Northeastern University School of Law. Her research focuses on the role of state consumer protection laws to limit unfair and deceptive food marketing to children. She also provides legal technical assistance to public health officials working to reduce sweetened beverage consumption and to increase access to drinking water. She is an adjunct professor at Northeastern University School of Law where she teaches the Public Health Legal Clinic.

Your role includes providing “legal technical assistance.” What does that mean?

Legal technical assistance is about providing expertise on legal and policy issues rather than providing legal advice to a client in the traditional sense. For example, I have worked with a local health department to think through different policy approaches that can be brought to bear on a tricky public health issue like reducing sugary drink consumption.

You recently co-authored a study finding that fast food television advertisements directed to children fail to meet the industry-funded Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) voluntary guidelines. How are the results significant?

This was an interdisciplinary research project spearheaded by researchers at Dartmouth University’s medical school. The study analyzed TV advertisements, frame-by-frame, on four children’s networks over the course of a year. I found the stark difference in messages between adult and child advertisements to be significant. CARU guidelines specify that if an ad has a premium message (i.e. a toy), that message must be clearly secondary to the actual product advertised (i.e. the food). What the research showed, however, was that while adult ads focused on food, taste, and price, child ads focused on pretty much everything but the food; movie tie-ins, toys, giveaways, street views of the restaurant and brand logos. Even the physical size of the food images on the screen in child ads was half the size of those in adult ads.

What this shows is that CARU’s current method of analysis to determine whether fast food companies are adhering to their self-regulatory standards is inadequate. From a legal perspective, when companies make public pledges to do one thing and then do not fulfill those promises, they start to drift into making false representations to the public about their business conduct. Nike, Facebook and Myspace have been taken to task under state consumer protection laws for saying one thing and doing another. State regulators should be taking a hard look at McDonald’s and Burger King in light of these findings.