May 17, 2007 3:00 AM PDT

Protecting kids from online food ads

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

A Washington-based advocacy group is urging new government regulations that would limit how food marketers can advertise to children in digital environments, with the hope of chipping away at childhood obesity rates in the United States.

The Center for Digital Democracy has written a 98-page report on the practices of food marketers on cell phones, digital video, social networks, games and virtual worlds.

The CDD plans to present the report to the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, the eve of an FTC deadline for public comment on food marketers' tactics to reach children across all media.

The report, called Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth, was commissioned by the Berkeley Media Studies Group. It highlights new types of digital media marketing by food and beverage companies. Such tactics include food company-created viral videos on YouTube and fast-food characters posing as "friends" on the teen hangout MySpace.

New regulations are particularly important now, according to the report's authors, because of the sheer amount of time kids spend in digital environments and the evolving techniques that marketers use to reach them.

"It's essentially an unregulated new frontier for these marketers, and they're trying everything they can to get at kids and teens," said Kathryn C. Montgomery, a professor at American University who co-authored the report. "Some of the tactics may well be deceptive and a number of them may be unfair, flying under the radar of parents, and federal and health regulators."

The CDD said that after issuing the report, it will have attorneys examine the marketing practices of food and beverage companies. Then, it plans to file a complaint with the FTC on individual companies' tactics, Montgomery said.

The report comes at a time when parents, educators and health officials are struggling to grapple with a growing epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. An estimated 2 million children ages 12 to 19 have experienced a pre-diabetic condition that's linked to obesity and inactivity, according to research from a nutrition standards board. Researchers have also shown that food and beverage advertising greatly influences kids' purchasing choices and eating habits.

As a result, government regulators are examining food marketing more closely, under a mandate by Congress. In the coming months, the FTC plans to subpoena 44 food, beverage and fast-food companies for details on their marketing practices to children, including their spending.

The FTC did not specify which companies it would subpoena, but said it is seeking data on marketing in traditional and nontraditional media, including product placements, video game advertising and some forms of Internet advertising, according to FTC spokeswoman Jackie Dizdul.

Once the data is collected, the FTC will write a report on its findings, called "The Food Industry Marketing to Children Report," for submission to Congress. The trade commission had held a public comment period for requests on its food and beverage marketing inquiry, which will close Friday.

The CDD is asking that the FTC consider its report and request that food and beverage companies provide details about how they are profiling children in digital environments, on the development of user-generated content online, and their marketing in virtual worlds, among other requests.

"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 the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, 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."

Correction: This story mischaracterized the relationship between the Center for Digital Democracy and federal laws regarding children and the Internet. In the mid-1990s, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act was supported by the Center for Media Education, from which the CDD was later spun off.

See more CNET content tagged:
beverage company, beverage, food, marketer, teen


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Liberal groups always blame the corporations like Kraft and Nabisco for hurting kids, and then turn around and help the ACLU let pedophiles out of prison.

**Yawn**, more misguided liberal corporate hate. Take care of all the child killers, then let me know, and we will spend our nights lying awake, worried about the Oreo man.
Posted by gerhard_schroeder (311 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Another call for bigger government
Does the left ever find a problem that does not require MORE government regulation?? In this case, has the left found a solution in search of a problem? I realize that kids are not getting enough exercise because of computers and video games. However, when I was a kid, we just spent most of that time in front of the television. Inactivity is inactivity. Regardless, even if inactivity is up to the greater influence of the digital lifestyle, are kids NOT going to get the urge for a pizza or a burger from McDonald's or Wendy's or Burger King if they never see any marketing? PLEASE! That is the kind of food kids like - junk food! We liked it when I was a kid and they like it now. A kid is not going to only eat a vegetarian diet if only they can be shielded from food marketing.

If there is a need to control what kids eat, who should do that? THE PARENTS! Let the parents put limits on the types of food. We do not need government doing it. Perhaps the professor had a point - someone might need to step in, but it should be the parents to exert a little responsibility rather than needing the big hand of government to try to further protect us from ourselves from cradle to grave. The wakeup call, if needed, should be to the parents!
Posted by GraysonBuzz (39 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Kids Games and Food Companies
Kudos to the Center for Digital Democracy for publishing their
report. Most kids' websites are designed and programmed by
digital advertising agencies whose client base, by and large, are
adult-orientated. What they've done for adult consumers trickles
down to what they do for kids. There's not the same
consideration of what should be done?it's what can be done.
Companies concerned about their brands should hire <a href="">kids designers like Oddtoe&lt;/
a&gt; or look at sites that have done children's Web work well (very
Kids are smarter than you think and having 'sugary snack'
approach you in a chat room won't help you sell more product. It
will just get you listed in an article like this one.
Posted by BillTangre (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Parents, Education...
I honestly feel the key is in education. We as parents need to make sure we educate them well to be able to make the best decisions when they are by themselves. There's no amount of protection (off- and online) that will shield children from the world out there. What will make them better citizens and more immune to "attacks" will be having a solid education.

If this is a topic that you are passionate about, I want to invite you join <a class="jive-link-external" href="," target="_newWindow">,</a> an online community for those touched by diabetes. It's a growing space where we share our concerns, tips and stories, to help each other out as we live through this very serious condition (parents of diabetic children included).
Posted by manuelhp42 (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag

Join the conversation

Add your comment

The posting of advertisements, profanity, or personal attacks is prohibited. Click here to review our Terms of Use.

What's Hot



RSS Feeds

Add headlines from CNET News to your homepage or feedreader.