Parents know their children access and receive a wide range of information online, and some of it can have far-reaching consequences. This is definitely the case when it comes to food advertising and marketing geared toward children. The possibility of influencing the food choices kids can and do make has escalated with Internet access.
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation asked the question about the impact of marketing and advertising of food to kids. The Foundation is a non-profit, private entity that focuses on major health care issues facing the nation. It operates as an independent voice and source of facts and analysis for policymakers, the media, the health care community and the general public. They recently released the results of their analysis of online advertising to children.
The report, "It’s Child’s Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children," found that more than 85 percent of the top food brands on TV that target children also use branded Web sites to market to children online. The study documents the use of "advergames," online games using a company’s product or brand characters, on 73 percent of the corporate-sponsored Web sites.
The study looked at 77 Web sites including 96 food brands oriented toward children. This report analyzed more than 4,000 Web pages that received more than 12 million hits from kids ages 2-11. About two-thirds of the sites used viral marketing in which children were encouraged to send e-mails to their friends about a product or invite them to visit the company’s Web site.
Other key findings released from the study include:
– On the plus side, about half the sites included nutritional information that could be found on a nutrition label. Slightly more than a quarter have information about eating a healthful diet, such as the number of servings of fruits and vegetables that should be eaten daily. About one-third of the sites offer some type of educational content, though some are linked to the brand.
– Half of all sites have TV commercials available for on-demand viewing. For example, one message given to kids is that they can watch an ad "over and over right now." About four in 10 sites have incentives for the user to purchase food to collect brand points that they can exchange for premiums such as branded clothes.
– One-quarter of the sites offer a "membership" opportunity for children age 12 or younger, but only half of those require parental permission. By signing up on the Web site, children can be informed of new brands and preview commercials. Practically all the sites in the study provided some information explicitly labeled for parents, such as the type of information collected from children.
– Three out of four sites offer extra brand items such as screensavers or printable coloring pages. Two-thirds of all brands have promotions for children including sweepstakes, trips or opportunities to win free merchandise related to the food product.
Unlike television, these corporate-based Web sites that offer interactive opportunities have compounded the degree of influence over children’s choices. In fact it has been suggested that the time kids spend online may be one contributing factor to the rising tide of childhood obesity. The current trend suggests 50 percent of children could be overweight by 2010, and that’s a pretty startling statistic if it becomes reality. There’s no doubt that the impact could be far-reaching.
Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D., Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Cooperative Extension Specialist, Colorado State University