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.

Read the article at Huffington Post →