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Kids get a taste of food-related advertising online

Food A new report out today revealed some unsurprising information: Marketers spend a lot of money trying to get kids hooked on foods such as Shrek cereal and Pirates of the Caribbean waffles. What's a little more surprising is that they don't spend much money marketing food to kids where so many of them hang out -- on the Internet. In 2006, the time period that the online-spending portion of the report covered, food companies only allocated 5% of their youth marketing dollars online. (Of course, the online advertising market is growing by double digits every year, much faster than overall ad spending, so the percentage has probably increased since 2006.)

The marketing-to-kids report (PDF download) released this morning by the Federal Trade Commission, with the pithy title "Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: A Review of Industry Expenditures, Activities and Self Regulation," says that the relatively low price tag for marketing to kids on the Web doesn't mean that companies aren't reaching kids there, however.

"A focus on expenditure data may underestimate the degree to which food and beverage marketers have relied on the Internet to advertise to children and teens," the report says. Translation: Internet advertising is cheaper than TV advertising, so companies can still have a big presence there without shelling out the big bucks.

In fact, the report says, kids are spending a lot of time on websites such as Wrigley's Candystand.com ("the hottest online games"), Postopia.com ("a fun site for kids") and Millsberry.com, a General Mills-sponsored site with games encouraging kids to watch Lucky Charms webisodes and play games hunting for Reese's Puffs online. They spend more time than they would with a TV commercial, in fact; between March 2007 and March 2008, kids spent as many as ...

... 20 minutes a month on Millsberry.com, 23 minutes on Nabiscoworld.com and 30 minutes on Wonka.com, according to the report, which relied on data compiled by Nielsen.

How do kids and their grubby little hands find these branded websites, which often offer free prizes and sweepstakes opportunities? Through display ads on their favorite websites, of course. The study shows that 56% of visitors to Kraft Entertainment also visited Disney Online in the time span of one month, and that 87% of Postopia.com visitors also went to Nick.com. Display ads for foods and drinks generated about 2 billion impressions on websites for kids and about 9 billion impressions on websites for teens in 2006, the report says.

But Kathryn Montgomery, a professor at American University's School of Communication, says the FTC report barely scratches the surface of the extent to which food companies advertise to kids online. Last year, she and husband Jeff Chester, at the Center for Digital Democracy, detailed 10 ways companies creatively market food to kids online (PDF download). These include sponsoring chats, commercializing online social networking communities such as MySpace and creating viral videos. For example, fast-food chain Wendy's created a video that was placed on YouTube and did not mention the company directly but sent users to a special value menu website.

"Health professionals need to understand that these ads are very, very pervasive," Montgomery said in a phone interview. "They are following young people wherever they go. It's something that's quite different from what policymakers understand."

Also today, the Council of Better Business Bureaus released a progress report about its Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, detailing whether 10 major food and beverage companies were able to self-regulate the way they marketed junk food to kids. The Initiative was created in 2006, and encouraged companies to pledge to either stop marketing food to kids or only market "better-for-you" foods.

Most of the companies were able to follow their pledges. But because Lucky Charms, Cocoa Puffs and Frosted Flakes made the cut of "better-for-you" foods, it probably wasn't too hard.

-- Alana Semuels

Semuels, a Times staff writer, covers marketing and the L.A. tech scene.

Photo: First Look Pictures

 
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