Food fight's new fronts: viral marketing, games

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[Washington] Critics fingering Big Food for America's childhood-obesity epidemic are shifting their scrutiny from TV ads to under-the-radar marketing messages such as adver-gaming and viral marketing.

During the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Health and Human Services' two-day workshop last week on marketing, self-regulation and childhood obesity, new FTC research found food ads directed to kids on TV have actually decreased 34% in the three decades during which childhood obesity more than doubled. That fact seemed to offer maligned food companies a ray of hope-until critics turned their attention to the growing field of marketing to kids beyond TV, including Internet efforts, licensing tie-ins, adver-games, product placement and viral-marketing tactics.


To deflect the closer scrutiny of the $12 billion food companies spend annually in advertising to kids, industry group Grocery Manufacturers Association proposed expanding Children's Advertising Review Unit guidelines to address computer games, video games and interactive Web sites. In addition, GMA's member-supported plans include the self-regulatory body prohibiting paid product placement on children's shows; it also advocated "appropriate use" of licensed characters. But that didn't appease critics.


Citing "great concern" with the shift toward digital media, Patti Miller, VP-director of Children Now, pointed out that kids spend an average of 26 minutes with adver-games, such as those provided by General Mills and McDonald's on popular kids' Web site NeoPets and Kraft's Self-regulation, she said "is not going to be efficient."

During the conference, corporations such as Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Kellogg Co. and General Mills outlined their obesity-combating product reformulations, marketing changes and fitness programs.

However, that didn't quell concerns of Kathryn Montgomery, professor in the public-communications division at American University, who cited efforts such as e-mails from and Nickelodeon's ad-filled Turbo Nick Web site as "things happening under the radar of parents and policymakers, some of which may well violate existing rules."

Both executives from the Association of National Advertisers and the American Advertising Federation spoke of evolving efforts surrounding new media, including the development by the ANA of a media-literacy program intended to help kids navigate the increasingly complex media and advertising environment more effectively. But that may not be enough to satisfy watchdogs.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, warned the food industry of his bill proposing regulation of kids' advertising if self-policing efforts fail to improve. He demanded that self-regulation "must have a purview over the whole range of vehicles by which food and beverages are marketed to children."

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