Technology

Crying Foul over Online Junk Food Marketing


A new report focuses on advertising methods, such as through social networks, and urges lawmakers to restrict junk food advertising to kids online

At age 2, Zameen Rashid is well acquainted with Lucky, the leprechaun who lists the marshmallow clovers, moons, and stars in boxes of General Mills' (GIS) Lucky Charms cereal. Maybe too well, says his mother, Fahmida Rashid, who frets that too-frequent exposure to food ads in video games, TV shows, and the Web will foster unhealthy eating habits. "Just as you wouldn't expect to see a tobacco ad on a kids' site or show, there shouldn't be junk food ads there either," says Rashid, a 31-year-old resident of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Consumer and children's advocacy groups share Rashid's concerns. Having successfully lobbied the government to place limits on junk food ads on TV, they now target marketing to kids via the Web. "While there are some rules for TV, there are no rules when you move online," says Patti Miller, vice-president of children's advocacy group Children Now and a member of the Federal Communications Commission's Task Force on Media & Childhood Obesity. "We don't want to reduce junk food advertising to kids [on TV] and then find that it has just moved to another platform."

The worry is that food companies are bombarding kids with ads for non-nutritious foods, fueling the obesity epidemic that, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, has increased the proportion of overweight kids under age 12 fivefold in the last generation and left almost 19% of kids between 6 and 11 overweight.

A new report, commissioned by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, part of the Public Health Institute in Berkeley, Calif., focuses on methods of advertising food to kids that have become particularly popular during the past two years, such as spreading messages through social networks, and urges lawmakers to restrict junk food advertising to kids online. It will be presented to members of Congress and has been shown to officials at the European Union. "With social networking, marketers are getting the kids to create the ads and share them with their friends," says Kathryn Montgomery, an author of the report and an American University communications professor. "It is incredibly sticky and it is viral. Regulators need to understand that."

Marketing to Kids: Expense Estimates Differ

The report's authors recommend that regulators restrict the number of ads for unhealthy snacks on kids' Web sites. Advocates also urge a ban on advertising junk food to kids under 12 and the creation of industrywide standards concerning what constitutes healthier snack food, ideally in line with recommendations for reducing childhood obesity released in 2005 by the U.S. National Academies' Institute of Medicine.

The authors say their recommendations go further than those outlined in a July 29 Federal Trade Commission report that focuses on marketing activities in 2006. That report found that while some food marketers target youth too aggressively, the industry as a whole had made strides to reduce food advertising to children. Of the $1.6 billion spent in 2006 by food and beverage marketers to promote their products to kids and teens, nearly 63% was spent targeting kids over 12, according to the FTC. That's a far cry from the $10 billion some researchers had estimated was spent on marketing to kids between 4 and 12 alone, the commission notes. "The report finds that, although there is room for improvement, the food and beverage industries have made significant progress," the FTC said in a statement.

Montgomery and co-author Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a public interest group focused on Internet policy, say the FTC's estimates of spending on youth advertising are misleading. New online advertising techniques let food marketers reach more kids and teens, for longer periods and for a fraction of the cost than in the past. For example, Coca-Cola (KO) launched a campaign with social network Facebook last year that lets users create a "Sprite Sips" character that can be shared with friends. Though Coca-Cola pays to create the ad, it doesn't have to pay for it "going viral" and being passed around by users. "The cost of reaching and engaging a lot more kids is a lot less than the cost of what it is to buy a 30-second television ad," says Montgomery, adding that in many cases ads are spread among social networking friends at no cost to the marketer.

Regulatory Authority Is Unclear

The Berkeley report's authors also say junk food companies have become particularly adept at targeting young people at the greatest risk for obesity, such as inner-city African Americans, through so-called behavioral targeting, which delivers ads based on a person's Web-surfing habits. For example, advertisers can concentrate junk food ads on computers located in urban areas and whose users have visited sites popular with inner-city youth. "They are using a powerful arsenal of tools to target children and adolescents so they can engage in these unhealthy eating behaviors," says Chester.

A challenge consumer groups face in getting the FTC or others to act is that is it's not clear who has the authority to regulate advertising online. Congress stripped the FTC of its authority to regulate advertising after the organization restricted sugary snack ads on children's programming. The Federal Communications Commission, meanwhile, is largely focused on regulating television advertising. "To show that the government needs to regulate this advertising to improve children's diets would be pretty tough," says Mary Engle, the FTC's associate director for advertising practices, adding that the link between junk food advertising and rising youth obesity rates isn't proven.

Placing Responsibility

Food marketers insist the industry is successfully policing itself and that no government regulation is needed. Starting this year, McDonald's (MCD) announced it would only advertise to kids those foods, including Apple Dippers, that fit within guidelines set in 2005 by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. McDonald's declined to make an executive available to comment. Kraft (KFT) only features products that meet higher nutrition criteria on Web sites where more than 35% of total visitors are under 12, says a company spokesman. "We think that companies can act on a self-regulatory basis much more quickly than the government can," the FTC's Engle says.

Advocates for regulation also say that the FTC's numbers on advertising to kids under 12 fail to account for Web sites that are officially created for older kids, but lure younger ones. For example, Kraft's NabiscoWorld.com is intended for kids older than 12. But the site includes games that could appeal to younger audiences, such as Oreos Race for the Stuf, whereby a player-controlled character can twist, lick, and dunk oversize Oreo cookies. NabiscoWorld.com, along with Wrigley's (WWY) Candystand, Pizza Hut, and Pepsi (PEP) Stuff were among the 10 most popular food sites on the Web in July, according to research firm Hitwise.

Some consumers and marketers say families, rather than the government, should be responsible for monitoring kids' exposure to advertising (BusinessWeek.com, 5/17/07). "Listen up, fellow parents: when we point a collective finger, three more are pointing right back at us," wrote J. Kristin Ament, a writer for online marketing blog Unbound Edition, in a 2007 response to an earlier report by Chester and Montgomery. "When will we stop playing the victim and start taking personal responsibility for our kids' health and eating habits."

That's just what Rashid, of Brooklyn, is out to do. And she doesn't have qualms about asking regulators for a little help.


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