Is Online Marketing Making Kids Obese?

A new study highlights ways companies use the Web to promote unhealthy foods to youngsters and asks regulators to step in

Gabrielle Ayala, 10, takes good care of her virtual pet. She diligently logs online to to feed the cat-like creature ice cream, omelets, smoothies, jellies, and baked goods. For Gabrielle, the Web site is about fun. Some marketers, however, see such online kids communities as an opportunity to associate "fun" with snack foods from the likes of McDonalds (MCD), Kellogg's (K), Kraft Foods (KFT), and others.

For parents trying to promote healthy eating habits, these online sales pitches are making mealtime no picnic, according to a new study. Researchers from the Center for Digital Democracy and American University released a report May 17 detailing how low-nutrient foods are marketed online to kids and teens using everything from avatars in virtual worlds to instant-messaging chat tools, and from Web sweepstakes to interactive games. The report's authors suggest that a rise in such marketing on sites where kids are spending larger chunks of time is contributing to childhood obesity and diet-related health problems by encouraging kids to make poor food choices.

Getting Inside Marketers' Strategies

The report findings were submitted to the Federal Trade Commission in hopes that the regulatory group will develop online marketing rules to rein in food messages targeting kids and young teenagers. The FTC is currently conducting a survey of food marketing to children, across a variety of media. As part of the regulator's study, it is demanding that 44 food-and-beverage manufacturers, distributors, and marketers disclose how they advertise to children.

Report author Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University, says that online food marketing has "stacked the deck" against parents when it comes to getting children and teens to avoid high-sugar, high-fat foods. "I think we have really set parents up here," says Montgomery. "We shouldn't be having debates with our kids in the aisles of grocery stores and every parent I know has had to do that."

Saundra Ayala, mother of Gabrielle and two other young children, knows just how difficult it is to fight the brand appeal of fast food and sugary snacks. Thanks to advertisements, her kids and many of their friends see McDonalds as a fantastic place. They know the jingle. They know about the toys in the kids' meals. So, it's not easy trying to explain why she won't let the family eat there more than once a month. "I think it would be easier as parents to have your kids eat healthy if you weren't bombarded with ads," says Ayala.

Early Childhood Branding

Food advertising is a central part of many of the free, ad-supported online services offered to kids. Part of the reason is that advertisers know food, like toys, is an area where kids have both purchasing power and sway over their parents' decisions, says Montgomery. Kids between ages 4 and 12 spent $30 billion in 2002, according to Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and co-author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture.

Some marketing practices highlighted by the study include the use of social networks to spur young people to add brands as "friends" and promote them to actual friends in exchange for free stuff. Such practices can turn kids into brand advocates, giving the brand a social status and identity appeal. And that form of marketing is far more influential than a 30-second TV spot, says Montgomery.

Among the companies highlighted for adopting such practices was Burger King (BKC), which developed a page for its mascot "The King" on News Corp.'s (NWS) MySpace social network, a site popular with teenagers and young adults. The King has drawn at least 150,000 friends (see, 9/11/06, "Marketing to Kids Where They Live").

"Sometimes Aren't Even Conscious"

Brands are also implanting their logos where kids spend most of their time, such as in the background of IM conversations, within buddy icons, and items in virtual worlds. Companies are also drawing kids to their heavily branded sites with interactive games, video-editing software, and music competitions. In addition to Neopets, the report cites Kellogg's promotion of its Pop Tarts pastries on Habbo Hotel, an online virtual community aimed at kids and teens. In exchange for answering a poll asking kids 13-and-over to pick the Pop Tart flavor most like them, respondents were entered to receive virtual furniture for their avatars.

The report also highlighted Kraft's use of sponsored IMvironments, Wendy's (WEN) sponsorship of an online music competition, and Masterfoods' use of Viacom's (VIA) teen site "the N" to promote Skittles candy. "It's immersive everywhere," says Montgomery. "These icons and brands are kind of floating around their world, beckoning them in ways that sometimes aren't even conscious."

The beckoning is growing increasingly innovative as well. Kentucky Fried Chicken (YUM) used a high-pitched Mosquito tone, which is supposed to audible only to those with extremely undamaged hearing such as children, in its television ad. It then asked respondents to go to a Web site and identify where they heard the tone in the ad—in essence turning the ad into a game or competition. Through a spokesman, KFC says that the ad was intended to get the attention of young mothers and fathers, not their children. "To enter the sweepstakes associated with the commercial, Web visitors were required to be at least 18 years old," says KFC spokesman Rick Maynard.

The food companies note that the marketing targeting kids is often less aggressive than most marketing targeting adults. There is a law, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, that prevents companies from collecting information on kids in order to target ads more directly to them.

Points for Healthy Foods

Many companies cite additional internal practices they have adopted in order to address concerns about marketing to kids. Kraft says it "reset its approach to youth advertising" several years ago, stopping all advertisements to kids under 6 and advertising only "better-for-you" products in all media to kids ages 6 to 11.

The company also includes logos on Web pages to encourage kids to go offline and do something active, and provides links to kid-friendly government health sites such as Both McDonalds and Kelloggs say they are working on industry self-regulation initiatives. Kelloggs is a member of the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising initiative, which is "reviewing Web site activities," says Jill Saletta, director of communications for Kellogg Company.

And the companies note that their sites often promote healthy foods, too. General Mills' (GIS) popular site, a virtual town for kids, encourages kids to create a buddy avatar. The avatar eats food it buys from the grocery store. Healthier items, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains give the avatar more health points and a better mood, which helps it perform better in online competitions, says company spokesman Tom Forsythe.

"The notion that your buddy's health is actually tied to these things motivates you to have your buddy healthy and perform well," says Forsythe. "We would not have a game about how many cookies can you eat." General Mills produces whole grain foods and is the largest U.S. producer of branded vegetables, says Forsythe.

The FTC could decide that more brands have to promote veggies and other healthy foods on their sites, regardless of whether they sell them or not. Or it could leave the industry to regulate itself in hopes that brands, wary of angering parents with ultimate control over pocketbooks, will limit ads for less-healthy alternatives. Either way, Montgomery says something has to be done to limit the ads and the intake of high-calorie, low-nutritional value food. "This is such a rising level of concern and the industry knows it too," says Montgomery.

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