Washington is once again focusing on children's food advertising. But unlike most recent attacks, which have tended to focus on TV spots -- the most visible manifestation of advertisers' attempts to reach kids -- this time the politicos and lobbyists are homing in on other marketing tactics.
Latest round of criticism
The latest round of criticism was set off last week by the release of a Kaiser Family Foundation report. The report tracked the number of food and fast-food marketers on TV who've created websites targeting children. It gave ammunition to critics who decry the use of advergaming, particularly those sites that require proof of purchase to play games or qualify for rewards. Children logging onto Kraft Foods' Postopia.com, for example, can unlock secret levels or gain extra lives and secret powers with Postokens. In order to get Postokens, though, children have to get a code found in specially marked boxes of Post cereals. The site also carries the following disclaimer: "The games and other activities on this website include messages about the products Kraft sells."
Attacks on new marketing tactics targeted at children came from a Kaiser forum following the release of the report and a Children Now forum held the following day.
In one attack Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, said that using viral marketing to reach children was an untoward attempt to co-opt kid-to-kid e-mails, essentially "rewarding children for becoming agents of the advertiser." He questioned whether children under 8 even understand what advertising is.
Websites, though, weren't the only interactive media to come under fire. Interactive TV, little more than a future possibility for most marketers, seemed to particularly irk critics. Speaking at the Children Now forum, Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps set a grim scene: "Picture this: A child turns on a TV show, an icon pops up, the young viewer pushes a button on the remote and is immediately transported from the television show to a lavish internet emporium where jingles, games and commercial products are available to tease, manipulate, sell and satisfy every desire. Shouldn't we get a handle on this before some harmful consequences are felt?"
As it turns out, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, is already on the case, with a proposal to "prevent interactivity with commercial matter during any children's programming" that's already gone to the Senate floor as part of cable TV legislation.
ANA fights back
The Association of National Advertisers last week launched a last-minute fight against the proposal, warning "new media innovations and communications technologies will be strangled or severely damaged."
Of course, the usual suspects -- food and traditional advertising -- received a beating as well.
"Advertising has made a lot of good children's television possible. But when we allow advertisers to go beyond normal and appropriate business practices, it's time for all of us to be concerned," said Mr. Copps.
Sens. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., each urged steps on advertising related to food.
"Something has got to give here because we cannot continue these trends," said Mr. Brownback, urging congressional hearings and talks between the government and the advertising and food industries on additional ways to combat childhood obesity.
Ms. Clinton, meanwhile, called for more research into the impact of media on kids and their choices.
"I think a lot of parents don't understand the damaging effects of constant media exposure -- the manipulation of children's minds by advertisers -- and they don't exercise responsibility or believe they have the tools to do so," she said.