Super-Sized Issue Faces Online Marketers

In January, Kraft Foods responded to public concern about the childhood obesity epidemic by saying it would curtail its television, radio and print advertising of certain products to kids between 6 and 16. What Kraft didn’t mention was Internet advertising. Since Kraft is behind one of the most longstanding online advergaming efforts —, launched in 1997 — it’s a particularly interesting omission.

I’m not the only one who noticed. Food industry watchdog group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) said at the time one of Kraft’s next steps should be to “extend its marketing guidelines to cartoon characters on packages, ‘advergames’ on the Internet, contests, and other forms of marketing.”

Kraft didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on the issue. I hope that’s because execs are giving it some deep thought. It sure looks like lawmakers and advocacy groups like the CSPI are. This week, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, along with various non-profits, held a press conference to announce Harkin’s plans to propose legislation to limit junk food advertising to children. Again, advergaming and Internet advertising, along with many other methods, came in for criticism.

Last week, Senator Hillary Clinton gave the keynote at a Kaiser Family Foundation event to unveil research on media consumption habits. She said she plans to introduce a bill to create a program that examines the links between media consumption and childhood obesity. Co-sponsors of the Children and Media Research Advancement Act are Sens. Joe Lieberman, Rick Santorum, and Sam Brownback.

Meanwhile, FTC Chairman Deborah Platt Majoras reportedly said the commission would hold a workshop this summer on the subject of food marketing and industry self-regulation.

I’m not trying to say Kraft, or anyone else for that matter, is doing anything wrong online. What I’m saying is online food marketers must get involved on Capitol Hill, and perhaps devise preemptory guidelines that will satisfy activists, before the environment becomes any more heated.

We all saw how quickly lawmakers picked up on spam and spyware issues. What’s more visible and emotionally charged than childhood obesity? We see it every day, and we’re only just beginning to understand the enormity of its long-term effects.

Advertising, as usual, is an easy target for those hoping to remedy the problem. More difficult to address are societal issues. Perhaps parents keep children close to home, as opposed to running around being physically active, out of safety concerns. The children of working parents may come to rely on foods like Kraft’s Easy Mac when they must rustle up dinner themselves. It’s much easier to blame marketing than deal with bigger issues.

Don’t think your product is immune from scrutiny. An article in the February issue of Pediatrics that looked at fruit juices, along with other sweet drinks like Kool-Aid, concluded, “reducing sweet drink consumption might be one strategy to manage the weight of preschool children.” Even marketing for that “healthy” apple or orange juice could come under fire.

The closest thing the industry has to self-regulation when it comes to kids advertising is the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU). So far, CARU’s focus when it comes to online advertising has been on privacy issues. But it has applied its existing guidelines to Web sites, along with the Web components of cross-media campaigns.

The organization recently upbraided Burger King for a TV spot, called “Chomp, Chomp, Chomp & Away,” for the company’s Kid’s Meal. The spot and the Web site specifically highlighted the double cheeseburger Kid’s Meal, rather than show the full range of options — most of which have fewer calories. In response to CARU’s concerns, Burger King changed the site.

But when I spoke to Elizabeth Lascoutx, VP/Director of the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), she said the group doesn’t even monitor advergames. That’s because CARU laid down the groundrules for Internet advertising way back in 1997, when advergaming was much more primitive.

“Maybe we need to reevaluate that now, but not without notice to the world,” Elizabeth told me. “We do have a task group looking at that now, and we’ll discuss it at the next board meeting in May.”

If you’re on that task force, or even if you’re not, I urge you to get involved, engage in discussions and help come up with some responsible guidelines that can be applied not only to advergaming, but to other emerging forms of interactive marketing. (Think mobile, interactive streaming video ads and word-of-mouth marketing.) The advocacy groups and lawmakers are making noise. It’s time for the industry to take action.

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