Study documents new interactive junk food marketing techniques aimed at kids

[from the Center for Digital Democracy]

Food and beverage companies are using the latest digital media technologies to promote their products to children and adolescents, according to a study released today at the National Press Club by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy. The report—“Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age”--documents in vivid detail how major food, soft drink and fast food brands are deploying a panoply of new techniques--including cell phones, instant messaging, video games, user-generated video, and three-dimensional virtual worlds--to target children and adolescents, often under the radar of parents. The study also reveals a range of new digital strategies these marketers have devised for targeting multicultural youth, including African Americans and Hispanics. In formal Comments submitted today to the Federal Trade Commission, several consumer and health groups--including Children Now, the Berkeley Media Studies Group, the Center for Digital Democracy, the Strategic Alliance for Healthy Food and Activity Environments, and the Public Health Advocacy Institute--called on the FTC to address specifically the practices documented in the report as the agency conducts its investigation of food marketing to children.

Among the many digital marketing examples cited in the 98-page report are the following:

• To “create a compelling way to connect with the younger demographic,” 600 McDonald’s restaurants in California launched a mobile marketing campaign, urging young cell phone users to text-message to a special phone number to receive an instant electronic coupon for a free McFlurry dessert.

• Coca-Cola’s “My Coke Rewards” program offers special codes in its products that enable young people to access a website, where they can earn such rewards as downloadable ring tones and “amazing sports and entertainment experiences.” This technique is part of a strategy for behavioral profiling, where marketers compile a detailed profile of each customer, including demographic data, purchasing behavior, responses to advertising messages, and even the extent and nature of social networks.

• Food Marketers have aggressively moved into MySpace and other social networking sites, creating “branded profiles” that invite children and teens to become “friends” with popular spokescharacters. “Welcome to the King’s Court,” beckons the Burger King MySpace profile. “The virtual home of the Burger King. He’s giving away free episodes of the Fox shows ‘24,’ ‘Pinks,’ and ‘First Friend.’”

• Wendy’s placed several “commercials masquerading as videos” on YouTube, specifically designed to attract “young consumers.” In one viral video, “Molly Grows Up”--which generated more than 300,000 views--a young girl is shown ordering “her first 99-cent Junior Bacon cheeseburger and Frosty.”

• The Mars candy company enlisted the musical group Black Eyed Peas to make a series of “Webisodes” called “Instant Def,” in order to promote Snickers bars to teens, an example of brand-saturated environments that weave products seamlessly into interactive entertainment content.

“Digital technologies are fundamentally transforming how food and beverage companies do business with children and adolescents in the twenty-first century,” explained American University professor and report co-author Kathryn Montgomery, Ph.D. “We urge the Federal Trade Commission to include the full range of new media strategies identified in this report in its investigation of contemporary food marketing practices.” Added Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) and the report’s other co-author: “As this digital marketing system moves swiftly into place, we have a relatively brief period to establish policies and marketing standards that could help prevent today’s young people--and future generations--from suffering the serious health consequences of poor nutrition.”

Lori Dorfman, Dr.P.H., director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG), cited a December 2005 Institute of Medicine report that gave the industry two years to significantly change the way it markets food and beverage products. “Our report clearly illustrates that much work must be done if such a goal is to be met,” declared Dorfman. “It appears that the food and beverage industry is making minimal changes with one hand but greatly expanding its marketing to children with the other. It’s not fair to families when food companies use technology to market to children out of earshot of parents.”

The study was submitted today as part of the formal record for the current Federal Trade Commission proceeding, “The Food Industry Marketing to Children Report,” which was mandated by Congress. Groups called on the FTC to compel companies to provide information on specific practices documented in the report, including “cookies,” “tags,” and other profiling and tools; “psychosocial research”; social-network campaigns; user-generated content; immersive media; and avatar-based techniques. [add url for letter] The new report will also be delivered today to policymakers in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission.

The study was commissioned by the Berkeley Media Studies Group and co-written by Professor Kathryn Montgomery and Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy (a co-sponsor of the report). Chester and Montgomery’s research and advocacy efforts during the 1990s led to the passage of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

Support for the report was provided to Berkeley Media Studies Group by The California Endowment and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

A website with the executive summary, full report, and interactive visual examples is available at

article originally published at .

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