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Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents: An Update

The Federal Trade Commis­sion has released its Review of Food Marketing to Children and Adolescents, and the conclusions indicate that there is still much to be done if industry self-regulation of food marketing to children is to become an effective way to protect the health of minors. The 2012 report is a follow-up to the FTC’s 2008 report, which Congress requested in response to dramatic increases in childhood obesity rates.

Four of the Marketing Methods

1. Cross-promotion continues as a hallmark of marketing to youth, especially younger children. Food products are tied to movies, TV shows, cartoon characters, toys, websites, video games and theme parks, as well as other entertainment venues. The review listed over 120 films, shows and books that are featured in cross-promotion campaigns. It noted Nickelodeon, Disney and Sesame Street® for promoting fresh fruits and vegetables.

2. Television advertisements are less prevalent now than they were 5 years ago, yet they remain a staple and still account for a huge amount of ad expenditure. Almost all TV ads portray snack foods as fun and interesting, with both real and animated celebrities and personalities acting as spokescharacters.

3. Internet and digital ads are now an anchor for marketing to young people. Games designed to promote a particular product—advergames—are a key focus, with only a few ads urging children to ask for parental permission. Teens are the targets of mobile device ads, with ring tones, prizes or points awarded for participating in the promotion.

4. Viral marketing, social media and word-of-mouth advertising are also directed toward the teen market, with companies urging users to engage their friends.

Based on the market research information provided, the FTC determined that family purchasing decisions are shifting away from mothers and toward a more collaborative family decision-making process, indicating that children play an important role in food decisions. Seventy-five percent of
purchasers said they bought a product for the first time because their children asked for it.

As part of the report, the Commission also assessed the food industry’s self-regulatory efforts to promote more nutritious foods. This attempt at self-regulation is known as the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. According to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, this effort has led to only “modest improvements in the way food and media companies market and advertise food to children, and the overwhelming majority of foods advertised to kids is still of poor nutritional quality.” For example, under the initiative’s standards, Fruit Roll-Ups®, SpagettiOs® and Cocoa Puffs® are considered nutritious.

With billions spent per year to market food to youth, it’s important for those concerned about children’s health to recognize how food information is being relayed to children and what is classified as nutritious.

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