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It's All Fun And Games For Online Junk Food Ads

Food Marketing In The Internet Age

Food companies are increasingly using new marketing strategies to reach out to their youngest consumers by creating virtual worlds and games targeted for children.

Many of the country's top food companies like Kellogg's, McDonald's, and Post Foods have online sites that attract children with games, puzzles and other age-targeted activities that take place within the food product's world. These games often star characters from their marketing campaigns.

For example, children can put their own photograph with Barney and Fred on the Fruity Pebbles' website, make their own comic strips with Lucky on the Lucky Charms' website and play arcade games on the Baby Bottle Pops' site.

When a child "Likes" a brand on Facebook, they see advertisements and promos from food companies pop up on their News Feed along with pictures and updates from their friends and family.

Mobile phones carry food games as apps.

Television advertisements towards children have been regulated and continue to be scrutinized, but online advertisements are new ground. American University communications professor Kathryn Montgomery calls this type of advertising 360-degree marketing. "Food marketing is really now woven into the very fabric of young people's daily experience and their social relationships."

Struggling To Define Age-Appropriate Advertising

This new child-focused marketing strategy is attracting attention because children process advertisement information differently than adults.

Current television advertisement regulations require that a buffer is placed between television shows and ads because children under the age of twelve cannot fully understand the difference between them. If a toddler is playing a matching game on a sugar cereal site, it is unlikely she can read the word "advertisement" let alone understand the complicated relationship it plays in her daily life.

Facebook requires users be at least thirteen years old to sign up for the services, but many young users lie about their age. With internet usage so prevalent, it is nearly impossible for parents to regulate every daily online or smartphone experience their child has.

"Better" For You Foods

Advocates for the food industry argue that these new marketing campaigns only advertise "better for you foods," as defined in a voluntary pledge signed by seventeen major corporations including General Mills, Pepsi and Burger King.

Although the Better Business Bureau says the companies comply with the pledge, the "better for you" terminology gives the companies a loophole. The food does not have to be "good for you" - it just has to be "better" than the most unhealthy alternative. Consequently, these sites often advertise sweet and unhealthy foods.

However, the University of Arizona found in a study that out of companies that took the pledge, 68.5 percent marketed their least nutritious alternatives to children anyway.

These advertisement sites are profitable for food companies because they are relatively low cost for the amount of people, specifically children, the marketing reaches. The McDonald's website, for example, received 700,000 visitors in one month, and about half of those visitors were under twelve.

Parents Vs. Millions Of Dollars

Those protecting the food industry and their virtual marketing strategies say that these online advertisements do not force parents to buy the unhealthy foods and that the ultimate responsibility for a child's health lies with her parents.

But Public Health Law Network presents another side of the argument:

Is it reasonable for food and beverage companies to spend hundreds of millions of dollars targeting children with marketing, mostly for obesogenic foods, placed literally everywhere and anywhere a child might eat, study, or play, and then demand that parents run interference against them?

It is estimated that $100 billion in food and beverage purchases are influenced by children asking adults to buy specific foods.

Anti-marketing advocates argue that the food companies are taking advantage of the power of "pester pressure." When children become involved with this new online marketing by becoming emotionally invested in games with the characters and sharing these online experiences with friends through emails and social networks, the children themselves become marketing tools.

Stopping online advertisements geared towards children does not stop a parent from buying unhealthy foods for their children if they choose. However, the concern is that the influx of online marketing unfairly pits parents against companies.

Opponents worry that food company advertisements will make their products so desirable to children that they end up being all kids want. Then, no matter what the child asks for, that the parent must always say "no."

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