Study Examines Food Marketing Online

Most food brands that market to kids on TV are doing so online as well, often through advergames, sweepstakes or viral marketing, according to a new study by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The report, “It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children,” looked at 96 food brands that mainly target children under 12 with TV ads, and found that 85 percent also have a branded Web site with content targeting children.

The goal of the study was to provide data to both U.S. legislators and marketers. Both groups that are looking at ways to police food marketing to kids to address growing concerns about childhood obesity, according to Vicky Rideout, VP and director of Kaiser’s Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, who oversaw the research.

“An area of increased discussion in the past year has been food marketing to children. One thing that’s been missing from this discussion to date has been publicly available data about the new world of online food advertising to children,” Rideout said during a forum held Wednesday in Washington D.C.

Kaiser’s new study found the use of advergames featuring a product or brand character was the most common marketing method found in the study, which was conducted between June and November 2005. At least one game, and as many as 67, were present on 73 percent of sites. The games are designed to encourage users to spend as much time as possible at the Web site, with 71 percent of the games promoting repeat playing, 45 percent offering multiple levels of play, and 22 percent suggesting other games the visitor might enjoy. Examples include the Chips Ahoy Soccer Shootout, Chuck E. Cheese’s Tic Tac Toe, the M&M’s Trivia Game, and the Pop-Tart Slalom.

Sweepstakes and promotions that kids could participate in were found on 65 percent of the sites. For example, visitors on the site could enter to win a Nintendo Game Cube, Pepperidge Farm offered visitors a trip to Nickelodeon’s TV studio, and several offered a chance to win free branded merchandise.

The next most popular tactic was viral marketing, including encouraging kids to e-mail a link to a friend, or invite them to view content on a site or join them for a game. Those techniques were used on 64 percent of the sites in the study. Some, such as, offer access to additional features if a user forwards the site to five friends.

The study found several other methods used by various sites. Seventy-six percent offered at least one brand-related giveaway, such as screensavers or wallpaper, printable coloring pages, or buddy icons. About half of the sites offered on-demand viewing of their TV spots, 38 percent offered an incentive program where visitors can redeem points found on product packaging for prizes, and 25 percent offered some kind of “membership” opportunity for children age 12 or younger.

Food marketing to kids has been identified as one of several contributors to childhood obesity, which affects 17 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S., and increases risks for heart disease, diabetes and cancer, said William Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The question is how big a contributor any single activity plays in the genesis of this epidemic, or its resolution,” Dietz said. “It’s fair to say, given the small amount of food advertising online, it’s likely to be a relatively small contributor. Still, we can’t neglect the greater impact this kind of advertising exposure can have. What we need is an integrated approach on many levels to address this.”

Dietz cites the intensity of online advertising experiences, the extended amount of time spent with the ads, and the personalization of the experiences as factors that make online ads important to address when looking into solutions for food advertising issues.

The ad industry began addressing the issue in 1996 through CARU, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus. All of CARU’s current guidelines, which mostly deal with misrepresentation and fraudulent claims, apply to online ads as well as offline ones. In addition, that group is currently updating its guidelines to address online ads more thoroughly.

“The advertising community has gone beyond getting into the ‘blame game’ of the obesity issue,” said Dan Jaffe, EVP of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers (ANA). “We’re trying to figure out what we can do to be proactive in response to this issue.”

Along with the work of CARU, Jaffe pointed to programs started through the Ad Council to promote healthy lifestyle choices as examples of initiatives the ad industry has undertaken to address obesity.

“The industry as a whole thinks this is a high-priority issue. We’re not just thinking about it, we’re already acting to do something about it,” Jaffe said.

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