Feds to Parents: Big Food Still Exploiting Your Children; Good Luck With That


By Michele Simon | Food Safety News by Marler Clark

January 8, 2013


If you wanted to ensure a report gets buried, a good time to release it would be the Friday before a holiday week. That the Federal Trade Commission released its latest report on marketing to children on that day speaks volumes about how seriously the Obama administration is taking this intractable problem.


The mind-numbing 356-page document is billed as a “follow-up” to the agency’s 2008 report, in which we first learned important if not surprising details about industry expenditures and the myriad ways that marketers target children.


As I explained then, the feds’ solution to the problem of industry spending more than $2 billion annually marketing mostly junk food to children isn’t government action, but rather improved voluntary self-regulation, despite this non-system being a proven failure, over and over again.


Ignoring the futility of this approach, the feds set out to examine how the food industry has cleaned up its act over the last few years. The report’s press release spin – commending industry for “progress” – defies the agency’s own data. Even the first page of the report’s executive summary admits: “The overall picture of how marketers reach children, however, did not significantly change.”


Kids Targeted Online, and Everywhere Else


For starters, while total ad spending directed at children dropped by 19.5 percent, the report notes a 50 percent increase in digital ads and other forms of “new media,” an indication that corporations are just getting smarter and more efficient in how they spend their marketing dollars. Indeed, as the FTC explains:


Internet promotional activities have become an anchor for food marketing, with more than 90% of the reporting companies engaging in online marketing in 2009. Online marketing is far less costly than TV and other media, and more interactive and engaging.


Moreover, cross-promotions, such as when food companies team up with movie studios, video games, theme parks, etc., which FTC calls “a hallmark of marketing food to young people” increased from 80 reported examples in 2006 to more than 120 in 2009. In a sign that it’s becoming increasingly impossible to separate TV from online entertainment, FTC offers: “SpongeBob episodes, for example, could be viewed on food company websites with cross-links between Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob website and the food company site.”


Also, it’s not just that spending is shifting from TV to online that’s significant, but that digital marketing techniques are more interactive and at times downright creepy, especially when it comes to teens. (See my post about PepsiCo’s online video game designed – according to the ad agency – to “scare the crap out of teenagers.”) The FTC report describes the social intent of “advergaming:”


One game directed the child to hold a cereal box up to a webcam in order to interact with the game. Other popular online marketing activities included allowing children to create their own avatar and personalize their virtual world, creating art work to share with a friend online, joining online “clubs” that offer free or discounted meals on a child’s birthday, and downloading screen savers, “emoticons,” ring tones, videos, and other items.


The agency also examined industry market research confirming the effectiveness of online techniques:O


Online marketing activities are a worthy investment because they keep children engaged with the company and promote brand loyalty. Other research underscored the importance of frequently updating online content to keep it fresh, and using streaming video and interactive icons to appeal to teens.


Other examples of non-traditional forms of marketing included:



Also missing from the mostly positive FTC press release was ethnic targeting, while the report contained these examples of marketing to H ispanics:



Translation: Marketers think the best way to get Hispanic adults to buy stuff is through their children. (Presumably this finding applies beyond just food.)


Of course, it’s not just Hispanic parents who want to please their kids. Market research from the companies showed how effective “pester power” is in getting parents to cave in to their child’s requests. Again, from FTC:


For example, one company’s study found that a child seeing an ad for a food product or seeing the product on the shelf was a key factor in purchase and that 75% of the purchasers surveyed bought the product for the first time because their child requested it. Another study showed that in-store advertising campaigns using child-targeted character-based themes outperformed those using mom-targeted themes.


Keep Industry in Charge, Why Fix What’s Broken?


So then, what does the agency charged with protecting children from this sort of predatory marketing offer up as a solution? Just more of the status quo, based on the food industry’s alleged “improvements” in the nutritional quality of the foods they are marketing to children...