FTC Investigating Online Food Marketing to Kids

Photo credit: Kevin Krejci/Creative Commons

This guest post was written by Kristina Chew, a writer for Care2 Causes.

Once upon a time food marketing meant TV commercials with cartoon leprechauns or rabbits. Now, kids get blitzed round the clock by advertising for Honey Nut Cheerios and the like in the form websites (McWorld by McDonalds), online games (like General Mills's Create A Comic) and Facebook ads created by companies from Kelloggs to Pringles.

In response, the Federal Trade Commission has undertaken a study about marketing to children that is due out this summer. The White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has pinpointed the marketing of junk food to children as a reason for rising rates of obesity in children. While some might see this as so much hand-wringing, a brief tour of some of the websites created by Kelloggs and others suggests that those companies know who decides what foods to buy at the supermarket and it's not the mom touting the whole wheat English Muffins -- it's children.Websites like McWorld and HappyMeal.com receive monthly visitors in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom are under 12 years old. Kelloggs' Apple Jacks site, which has games and features an iPhone app, receives 549,000 visitors, while General Mills's Lucky Charms site had 227,000 visitors in February. Some companies have created websites for children that, while they do not overtly feature any food items, are definitely vehicles to advertise the company's products: Visit McWorld and you'll find that something -- hamburgers, french fries, and the like -- is notable by its absence, as the New York Times Bits blog points out.

As Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food and Policy notes that "these marketing efforts were more cost-effective than TV spots because they were cheaper to produce and disseminate and were promoted by the children themselves -- through word of mouth or its online equivalent."

However, children under the age of 12 often do not understand how advertising works (and parents are themselves not always clear about what is content and what is advertising). The New York Times interviewed a number of students at Pathways to College, a charter school with 210 students in southern California, about junk food marketing; the students' responses suggest that they neither realize nor care that the real reason for sites like McWorld are to get them to get their parents to buy McDonalds:

In the older grades [i.e., middle school], the children interact with food marketers differently, often on Facebook or through quizzes advertised on product packaging or TV. Many sixth graders say they vote in online surveys for, say, a new flavor of Mountain Dew, or for which kind of Doritos or Cheetos they prefer -- sometimes enticed by the offer of a prize.

"I voted for Jalapeno Cheddar Cheetos and I didn't win anything, which was kind of a rip," said Justin Elliott, 11. He said he did not think of this as advertising: "They just want to see which we like so they can make more of it."

Justin also plays games on the Honey Nut Cheerios site, where, much as on other such sites, a small banner indicates that the visitor is being sold something. This one reads: "Hey kids, this is advertising."

[Fourth grader] Lesly, though she plays regularly, said she had never paid attention to the banner. When it was pointed out to her, she tried to read it: "Hey kids, this is ..." She paused, then said: "I don't know that word."

As Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University who studies marketing to youth, says "Food marketing is really now woven into the very fabric of young people's daily experiences and their social relationship."

In other words, those campaigning to reduce rates of childhood obesity have their work cut out for them. I can see good-hearted nutritionists and children's health advocates making calls to create equally slick and fun sites like McWorld but I have a feeling (from my own experience as a parent) that kids will see through these as the educational sites they are. How can we teach children to learn that the games and other sites may seem like free entertainment, but at a huge cost to their health?


This guest post comes from Care2's Causes Channels, covering issues from Animal Welfare to Women's Rights and everything in between, and enabling its large online community to take action on issues they care about.
Related Stories:
San Francisco Says No to Happy Meals
Read more about food advertisements:
Fast Food Advertising is On the Rise -- With a Focus on Minority Youth -- While Kids Continue to Grow Fatter. What's Wrong With This Picture?
Dear Parents of America: Advice from Ann Cooper, Renegade Lunch Lady, to Improve Your Child's Nutrition
Fast Food Kid's Meals Have Adult-Sized Fat, Calories and Salt

Tags: Diet

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