Food Marketers to Kids: You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

Television isn't the only place for companies to pedal their unhealthy wares anymore—online sites and games are the new frontier.

While television advertising of junk food to children has decreased in recent years, companies have turned their focus to the Internet—even embedding ads in games and on popular kids' websites. (Photo by: Richard Drury/Gettty Images)
Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

It’s not enough anymore for parents to worry about the food advertising their children see on television. No, food companies have laid claim to new hunting grounds for the hearts, minds and bellies of America’s youth, 32 percent of whom are overweight or obese: the Internet.

In a report published in late December, the FTC found that while overall spending on food marketed to children fell nearly 20 percent between 2006 and 2009, online marketing increased by 50 percent in that same time period. 

Food companies spent $1.8 billion to market food to children ages 2-17 in 2009, but the data clearly shows that companies only shifted their marketing bucks away from expensive television ads to media where children are spending more of their time—the Internet and mobile devices.

The sneaky tactics food companies now use online—like embedding junk food advertising in interactive games on popular websites like Nick.com—reach children who are completely unaware they are being targeted, says Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

“There are no controls over online advertising to kids like there are for children’s television,” she says. “Companies can basically advertise any way they want on the Internet. They’re taking advantage of children’s inability to critically review advertising.”

The ubiquitous nature of Internet food ads and their success attracting kids may be startling, but it should come as no surprise. Older youth aged eight to 18 spend as much as seven hours a day online and kids under five use the Internet weekly.

Harris says research has shown that children don’t recognize advertising as well online as when they see it on television, especially when they’re cleverly disguised as games. When food ads are embedded in online games, children may even eat more food—and more junk food in particular. In a study published in late December, Dutch researchers had eight- to 10-year-olds play food- and non-food-related memory games on the Internet and then offered them bowls of jelly candy, chocolate, sliced bananas, and apples. The kids who played the food games ate more of the unhealthy food—and twice as much food overall—than the kids who played non-food games or no game at all.

“We were very surprised,” Frans Folkford, a graduate student in communications at the University of Amsterdam who led the study, told NPR’s The Salt.

The numbers in the FTC report may not tell the whole story, either. For instance, the FTC’s age range for a “child” is two to 11 years old.

“Anyone who knows a 12-year-old knows that they’re a child,” Harris says. “Plus, that age group watches more TV than any other group.”

Furthermore, while the review reported that food product marketing on television decreased, children are seeing more fast-food advertisements than ever before. Children between two and five saw 21 percent more fast-food ads on TV in 2009 than they did in 2003, while six- to-11-year-olds saw 31 percent more, according to a University of Illinois study published in 2011.

The FTC’s analysis of food companies’ nutrition improvements were sobering as well. Cereal companies lowered sugar content and increased fiber slightly, while drinks marketed to children lowered total calories a bit, the report found (but still averaged 20 grams of added sugar per serving).

One of the biggest reasons change has been so minimal in coming to the marketing and nutrition of kids’ foods is that few meaningful standards exist, leaving companies to regulate themselves on a voluntary basis. The Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, for instance, works with a number of participating companies, but the FTC report found that several of the largest food makers have yet to participate with such programs.

“I don’t think you can actually regulate yourself,” says Harris of Yale’s Rudd Institute. She recalls that when the government’s Interagency Working Group (which brought the FTC together with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Communications Commission) came up with meaningful standards for nutrition and advertising of food marketed to kids, Big Food fought back, spent millions of dollars lobbying against the standards, and forced the government to drop the initiative altogether.

Should there be stricter national regulations regarding the nutrition and advertising of foods marketed to children?

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