May 17, 2007 3:00 AM PDT
Protecting kids from online food ads
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"The purpose of the report is an emergency wake-up call to clueless regulators," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the CDD, which filed a similar report focusing on how marketers target kids online in 1996. Its ensuing complaint eventually led to COPA, which essentially requires marketers to obtain permission from parents before collecting any personal information from their children ages 12 and under.
The current focus of the policy debate is centered on television. In January, the FCC began enforcing new federal rules that restrict children's TV channels like Nickelodeon from displaying Web site addresses that contain any links to commercial content. But critics argue that those regulations are short-sighted, given that marketers today are targeting children on media beyond the TV.
"The world has changed. Young people are living in distinct digital media environments, with far more impact on attitudes and development than TV," said Chester.
Particularly in the last few years, he said, marketing and digital media have merged to create a powerful force in the lives of younger generations, through devices like mobile phones and within virtual reality sites. "Call it the Second Life of the dot-com boom," Chester said.
Some examples of digital food marketing contained in the report:
In the fall of 2005, McDonald's launched its McFlurry mobile marketing campaign, which targeted younger people with coupons for free dessert via their cell phones. The fast food chain urged kids to text message a special phone number to receive an instant digital coupon, along with free ringtones. McDonald's promoted the campaign on billboards near high schools.
In the spring of 2005, the Kellogg Company printed promotional URLs on more than 6.5 million of its Corn Pops cereal packages. Kids visiting the page were required to give personal information, including a cell phone number, to play a trivia game for the potential to win various prizes.
Coca-Cola introduced an initiative called My Coke Rewards, which placed special codes on products that let buyers access a site and enter personal information to get rewards like downloadable ringtones.
Wendy's has created videos-cum-commercials on YouTube that are designed to attract younger generations. One video, "Molly Grows Up," depicts a young girl ordering her first 99-cent Jr. Bacon cheeseburger and Frosty. It generated 300,000 views, according to CDD.
Representatives of the companies could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Nutrition experts and some members of Congress are already showing support for new regulations surrounding digital food marketing.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is expected to hold a press conference Thursday morning following the issue of the report.
Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Public Health at New York University and author of several books on nutrition, highlighted the growth of food makers' spending toward kids in recent decades in order to boost quarterly profits. That spending has trickled to the Web as more kids have gone online.
According to Nielsen/NetRatings AdRelevance data, online spending among the top 15 food and beverage companies is the highest in the consumer category at nearly $11 million in April. Last year, marketing spending online by food, beverage and candy companies totaled $133.7 million, up 23 percent for the year, according to data from Advertising Age, which put the industry at 15th in U.S. Internet spending.
"We cannot rely on the food industry to self-regulate, especially when much of its marketing is invisible to the sight of most adults," Nestle said in a statement. "Congress and the FTC need to act on this new information about digital food marketing and start putting some restrictions on direct marketing of junk foods to children."
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