|From top: Hershey's 'Syrup Squirt' game, McDonald's Ronald.com game and Mars' M&M Trivia Game were among the many online sites named in the study. | Also: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
The report, "It's Child's Play: Advergaming and the Online Marketing of Food to Children," details growing advergaming, webisodes and viral marketing to target those under 13. In one of the more controversial details, the report said 38% of those food-oriented websites encourage children to purchase products: If children want to play games or participate in activities on the site, they have to first enter product codes. The report also said that only 18% of websites include information clearly explaining the site is advertising.
Today's report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than eight out of 10 (85%) of the top food brands that target children through TV advertising also use branded websites to market to children online.
It comes on the eve of a Children's Now conference tomorrow, where senators including Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and several Federal Communications Commission members are expected to be critical of such targeting.
It also comes as advertisers and media companies, growing increasingly worried about pressure from Washington on food and fast-food marketers, expand efforts to diffuse the pressure heading their way. Nickelodeon, the target of frequent criticism by marketing critics, today announced it was licensing cartoon characters Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants to three additional fruit and vegetable providers.
Trends in online food advertising
Today's report didn't take sides, but analyzed current trends in food advertising on the web, an area with fairly little detailed research. Kaiser's report, done by Elizabeth S. Moore, associate professor of marketing at Notre Dame, tracked activities last year.
According to the report, 85% of top food brands that target children through TV also use branded websites to market to them; that 73% of the sites use advergames; 65% use sweepstakes and promotions; 25% offer membership;, and 53% offer online access to TV ads.
The report said 51% of websites provide nutritional information for their products, 35% have some educational information and 33% have what the report calls "advercation" -- education information directly relating to the product, like a history of chocolate on Hershey's site.
Representatives of consumer groups and some critics of children-targeted ads say the report could provide fuel for further action.
Child 'agents of the advertiser'
Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona, told a Kaiser Foundation forum that using viral marketing to reach children was an untoward attempt to co-opt child-to-child e-mails, essentially "rewarding children for becoming agents of the advertiser." He questioned whether children under 8 even understand what advertising is.
Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the problem isn't the tactics, it's the foods advertised. She said the ads present a "whole different diet" of foods than those the government advises.
Advertisers and ad-group representative said food websites aimed at children remain a tiny part of the overall marketing mix, and that the reasons behind increased childhood obesity are complex. They also said advertisers are changing what they do, citing efforts by the Children's Advertising Review Unit to rewrite the ad industry's rules regarding kid-targeted ads along with marketer efforts to sell healthier products to children.
Nancy Daigler, VP-corporate and government affairs at Kraft Foods, said her company, which is now advertising healthier products on TV, radio and print to children, is re-evaluating its internet sites and expects to have changes there before year's end.