These days, kids who get bored with merely watching Chester the Cheetah in television commercials can turn on the computer, log on to the Cheetos Web site, sign up to be one of the mascot's "cheesy secret agents" and then play games to earn points and prizes. And if they don't like Cheetos, they can have similar experiences on the Web sites of almost any snack food, candy or soda.
In fact, 85 percent of the top food brands that target children through television advertising also have Web sites that market to children, a report released in July by the Kaiser Family Foundation found.
The findings are concerning given that corporate-sponsored sites primarily market foods and beverages high in calories, fat and sugar at a time when more than 9 million young people ages 6 to 19 are overweight and at a greater risk for heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report, which is reportedly the first comprehensive study of online food advertising to kids, also emphasized that the Internet is a rapidly-growing medium that offers extensive methods of interaction.
"The nature of the exposure that the children see on these Web sites is very different from passive 30-second commercials," Elizabeth Moore, PhD, associate professor of marketing at the University of Notre Dame and author of the report, said during a news conference in Washington, D.C. "It is by definition an interactive process. It is much more in-depth, engaging and involving (than television)."
The study examined the marketing methods used on 77 children's food and beverage Web sites, finding that sites are using new ways to reach children, often disguising their efforts with games or competitions.
Advergaming--online games featuring a company's product or brand characters--was included in 73 percent of the Web sites. For example, on
Viral marketing, a new technique where consumers market to one another via the Internet, was found on 64 percent of the sites. The sites encouraged children to send their friends invitations, greeting cards and birthday wishes through e-mails that display product names and characters.
More than half of the sites--53 percent--also included television commercials available for viewing online, while incentives for product purchases were included on 38 percent of the sites. On the site for Bubble Tape, kids are encouraged to enter codes found on chewing gum packages and get free Nintendo game tips.
Web sites also offered opportunities for children to register to become members, customize their own personal pages and print out branded items like coloring pages, door hangers and calendars.
Such techniques are dangerous in light of the country's growing childhood obesity problem, the report found.
"(Online advertising) is a double-whammy ... it not only promotes food intake, but also promotes inactivity," said William Dietz, MD, PhD, director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at CDC, who was invited to speak at the news conference.
Dale Kunkel, PhD, communications professor at the University of Arizona, added that the food intake the sites promote is especially detrimental.
"You just can't find advertising for really healthy food products to children," Kunkel said at the conference. "The food industry needs to be a part of the solution ... there should be a balance in the foods advertised to children."
The real danger of such heavy marketing is that sweetened cereals, candies, snacks, carbonated beverages and fast food comprise approximately half of all advertisements aimed at children, according to "Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?" a 2006 report from the Institute of Medicine. The report also found that food and beverages--candy and snacks, soft drinks, fast food and cereals--ranked as the top four out of 10 items that children ages 8 to 12 reported they could select without parental permission.
Young children have an innate preference for foods that are sweet and salty and will likely develop "sustained preferences" for junk foods if they are not continually exposed to healthful, nutrient-rich foods, according to the report.
Marketing influencing kids' food choices
Increased marketing for high-calorie, fattening foods leads to increased consumption, which leads to greater numbers of overweight children, according to Patricia Crawford, MPH, RD, co-director of the Center for Weight and Health in Berkeley, Calif., and chair of APHA's Food and Nutrition Section. Crawford said advertising through television and the Internet reaches children when they are inactive and prone to snacking.
Some companies have taken steps to promote healthier eating. Kellogg's Web site, for example, has a link that teaches children about the Food Pyramid. And Kraft Foods has begun to advertise via the Internet some products that are lower in fat and calories and higher in nutrients, according to Nancy Daigler, Kraft's vice president of corporate and government affairs, who spoke at the news conference.
"We think you can be a responsible marketer and also provide some fun for kids," Daigler said.
However, young children may not be ready to make their own decisions about food and nutrition, Crawford said.
"I think the real issue is whether the very young should be responsible for recommending to their parents what foods they should consume," Crawford told The Nation's Health.
The Kaiser report also pointed out another danger of online marketing to children: Many kids are too young to understand that they are viewing an advertisement. According to the Institute of Medicine report, children generally do not develop skills to discriminate between commercial and noncommercial content until the ages of 8 to 11.
Crawford said that more work and research needs to be done in the field of marketing to children.
"It's up to those in child development to help us understand what it really means ... when kids see these advertisements," Crawford said.
Millions of children are exposed to online advertising at young ages. The IoM report estimated that more than 34 million children and youth in the United States ages 3 to 17 use the Internet, making them a prime target for advertisers.
The Kaiser report was produced to raise awareness of the problem of online food marketing and to urge policy-makers to regulate the new marketing medium, according to Victoria Rideout, MA, a vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of the foundation's Program for Study of Entertainment Media and Health.
Rideout said that most of the current guidelines provided by the Children's Advertising Review Unit--the section of the advertising industry's self-regulatory program that evaluates children's advertising and makes recommendations--focus on preventing deceptive advertising, not on addressing junk food marketing to kids. For example, the review unit's guidelines, which are not mandatory, suggest that advertising be specifically labeled as such online, but the Kaiser study found that only 18 percent of the Web sites provided an "ad alert" for children. Rideout is pushing for the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and lawmakers to step in and enact more stringent regulations for the Internet.
However, during the news conference releasing the report, advertising industry representatives indicated that they are taking steps toward addressing the problems of online marketing.
"There are constant discussions to do something about this," said Daniel Jaffe, JD, executive vice president at the Association of National Advertisers. "Online ads are still a very small part of the total advertising picture, but this is a highly important area ... because it is growing."
The Kaiser Family Foundation report, "It's Child's Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children," is available at