In a report to Congress, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) outlined how the food and beverage industries pull in some of their biggest customers — kids. Not surprisingly, most of the marketing money is not aimed at getting youngsters to yearn for cantaloupe over candy, or enticing teens to choose fresh produce versus fries. Instead, much of the $1.6 billion that the companies spent in 2006 marketing their edible, drinkable products to kids was for soda, breakfast cereal, and fast food.
Luckily, though, advertising to kids is undergoing big changes, which you may notice as you travel the supermarket aisles or ease up to the drive-through. That's due to the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which has been active since the FTC and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) put pressure last year on food and drink makers to revise how they promote their products to kids. Now, 13 major companies (responsible for about two-thirds of the TV food and beverage ads directed toward kids) have agreed to limit how they market to children under 12.
According to this latest FTC report following up on the initiative's progress, the companies (including McDonald's, Burger King, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kellogg, and Hershey) have pledged to:
- Spend at least half of their marketing dollars aimed at kids and teens on healthy products and choices (like the efforts from McDonald's, and recently Burger King, to promote only kids' meals with fruit and low-fat milk).
- Nip product placement for kids under 12 in the bud (i.e., mentioning or showing certain food or beverage brand names on shows, videos, or movies geared toward kids).
- Stop promoting food or drink brands to kids in school.
- Make interactive games only about the companies' healthiest options (fare that's lower in fat, calories, sugar, and salt) and healthy lifestyles choices.
- Decrease the use of licensed characters on packages of often-unhealthy foods and use these familiar faces on companies' "better for you" offerings instead. That means Disney and Sesame Street characters (like Mickey Mouse and Elmo) are only on healthy foods now, and Nickelodeon's Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants will be on more wholesome options come 2009.
How Companies Catch Kids' Attention
In today's media-saturated environment, kids and teens are exposed to marketing not just on TV, the radio, and in their favorite magazines. Ads are also abundant on the Internet and in what the FTC calls "new electronic media" — things like text messaging, podcasts (digital content sent to computers or portable media players), and "webisodes" (video episodes online).
As the report points out, companies now can even employ a technique called "viral marketing," which encourages young consumers to forward marketing messages to their friends through easy tech tactics like e-cards.
On the Web, food and drink makers often appeal to kids of all ages by offering youth their own sections or completely separate websites featuring activities and free downloads. Some of the freebies, according to the FTC, include music, MySpace page layouts, ringtones, screensavers, and wallpapers for teens; and coloring pages, stickers, games, decals to iron on, and activity sheets for kids. And "advergames," which may seem simply like something fun to play, are made for the sole purpose of promoting a product.
When it comes to TV, ads influencing kids aren't just airing during children's shows. In the age of reality TV, commercials aired during programs that are meant to appeal to the whole family (like "American Idol," which boasted about 3 million child viewers, on average) might not be aimed directly at kids but their marketing messages still reach even the youngest viewers.
Schools are also a major advertising venue. In fact, more than 10% ($186 million) of all food and beverage marketing aimed at kids and teens is directed to schools. Nearly a quarter ($116 million) of what soft drink companies spend on advertising to kids is school-based, with educational institutions receiving lucrative commissions for vending machine sales.
What This Means to You
It's impossible to shield kids from all ads all the time. But you can help put marketing messages in perspective and keep them to a minimum:
- Limit screen time (TV, video games, and computer) — to no more than 1 or 2 hours of quality content a day for kids over age 2.
- Have your kids watch public television stations.
- Record programs — without the commercials.
- Buy or rent children's videos or DVDs.
- Know what kinds of websites your kids visit, magazines they read, shows they watch, radio stations they listen to, and new media (like text messaged ads, podcasts, and webisodes) they see.
- Teach kids to be savvy consumers. Start discussions about advertised products by asking questions like, "Do you think that product is good for you?"
- Talk to kids about products and promotions tied to food and drinks, from toys in kids' meals to contests and giveaways.
- Explain, when your kids ask for stuff they see advertised, that ads are designed to make people want things they don't necessarily need.
- Don't cave in to your kids' request for character-driven foods (or ones you think they'll like better because their favorite animated "friends" are on the box). The more you offer these as OK options, the more your kids will expect other character-driven products that may seem more appealing. Talk about how what's on the package (or how the food is shaped or colored, for that matter) doesn't make it taste any better or make it any better for you.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2008
Source: "Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities, and Regulations," FTC, July 2008.