Report Finds Small Decline in Food Ads Targeted at Children

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The latest analysis shows food-and-beverage makers have fewer ads on television aimed at children, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still reaching young audiences.

According to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), food-and-beverage marketers have made “modest nutritional improvements” in their advertising targeted to youngsters but have upped spending on new-media campaigns.

The new study is a comprehensive follow-up to the FTC’s 2008 report, which was requested by Congress amid concerns over the U.S.’s rising obesity rates. Both reports explore data the FTC obtained from subpoenas of major food-and-beverage marketers including General Mills and Kraft Foods. The earlier report analyzed data from 2006 to assess the first attempts at self-regulation by the industry toward marketing to kids. The follow-up study compares the 2008 findings with ’09 data the FTC once again gained through compulsory requests to 48 major food-and-beverage-industry makers.

(MORE: Disney’s Diet: No More Junk Food Ads on Kids Channels)

On its face, the data are encouraging. In 2009, total spending on food marketing to youth dropped 19.5% to $1.79 billion from $2.1 billion in 2006. Spending on child-targeted television ads also fell 19.5%. However, despite these changes, the report also shows that marketers are focusing more on new-media marketing strategies such as online and mobile tools to reach kids. In fact, new-media spending increased 50% in 2009.

The FTC writes, these new marketing strategies may be even more effective than traditional television-based methods and their ubiquity may further fuel child-driven requests for certain foods:

Those techniques are highly effective. Consumer research submitted by the reporting companies confirms the “pester power” phenomenon — child-directed marketing and promotional activities drive children’s food requests. Children, in turn, play an important role in which products their parents purchase at the store, and which restaurants they frequent.

The so-called pester power is the goal for these companies; it’s hard to turn down a child begging — repeatedly — for Dora the Explorer popsicles. Research data from some companies showed food packaging is a critical hook for getting a child’s attention. About 75% of parents bought a food product for the first time after their child asked for it.

Relying on familiar characters to sell cereal is a powerful marketing strategy, and cross-promotional advertising techniques that link food products to television and movie favorites increased from 80 children’s movies and TV shows in 2006 to 120 in ’09. According to the report, SpongeBob SquarePants and movies like Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs were major contributors in promoting frozen desserts and candy among other foods in 2009.

(MORE: Watching TV Steers Kids Toward Eating Junk)

The report showed that despite optimism after initial efforts to encourage such media partners to self-regulate marketing to children and teens, overall, these attempts are lagging. Major media companies continue to license their most popular characters, and it’s not always to sugar-free snacks. In early December, a group of health organizations, doctors and nutritionists sent a letter to Nickelodeon and its parent company, Viacom, urging the broadcaster to apply stricter standards for their children’s advertisers. “Efforts to get food companies to cease and desist targeting kids for ads run up against business imperatives to expand sales and report growth to Wall Street every quarter,” writes Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University in her blog, Food Politics. “Short of regulation, public pressure might be just what’s needed to encourage Nickelodeon — and food companies — to stop marketing junk foods to kids.”

Other media personalities like performer Beyoncé are also being criticized for promoting unhealthy foods. Although the singer has been an active supporter of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, her recent advertising deal with Pepsi has left many in the public-health community unhappy with her decision. “Your image is one of success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour. But by lending your name and image to PepsiCo, you are associating those positive attributes with a product that is quite literally sickening Americans,” Center for Science in the Public Interest executive director Michael F. Jacobson wrote in an open letter to the artist.

Greater awareness of the dangers of the obesity epidemic and the indirect ways that media and marketers perpetuate unhealthy eating habits, however, is putting pressure on the industry. In June, Walt Disney Co. announced it would ban all junk food advertising from its TV channels, websites and radio programs that cater to young children and would adopt nutritional guidelines for advertisers by 2015. The FTC report also acknowledges companies participating in the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulation program run by the Council of Better Business Bureaus that is implementing nutritional criteria for ads. The newest members to the initiative are Nestlé USA, the Dannon Co., Post Foods and Sara Lee Corp.

(MORE: The Sad State of American Kids’ Food Environments)

The report also found some small improvements in the nutritional value of the foods that are marketed to kids. Cereals had less sugar and more whole grains in 2009 than in ’06, and companies stopped marketing cereals with 13 g of sugar or more per serving to kids. Drinks advertised to kids and teens had slightly lower calories, although they still averaged more than 20 g of added sugar per serving. Fast food marketed to youngsters also slimmed down with less calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat in 2009 than in ’06.

There are also signs that the efforts are paying off in the way children are eating. The report found that kids and teens are choosing to eat healthier foods and increasing their daily consumption of nutrients like calcium than they were 10 years ago. Although the report’s authors say it’s difficult to connect these changes to food marketing, they hope some of the positive eating is a result of enhanced self-regulation efforts.

Still, they say, the gains are small, and should be greater. “The developments reported … are commendable,” the report’s authors write. “Nonetheless, the Commission believes that the food industry can — and should — make further progress in using its marketing ingenuity and product portfolio to address childhood obesity.” If they can entice children to eat anything, perhaps they can coax them into choosing healthier fare.