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Revealed: Secret tricks to sell junk food to children


The Scotsman, 11/24/06

  • Companies move to less heavily policed internet to advertise to children
  • OFCOM announced plans last week to ban junk-food ads from children's TV
  • Companies claim information is 'out of date, misleading or plain wrong'

Stung by moves to restrict traditional methods of selling junk food to children, such as TV advertising, the consumer group Which? says companies are often turning to the less heavily policed internet.

Which? has named a dozen major food companies it says are turning to new "ploys" to target youngsters, often without parents knowing. And it accused them of delivering "empty rhetoric" when they claimed to have specific guidelines on marketing products high in salt, fat and sugar to children.

Last week the Office of Communication (OFCOM) announced plans to ban the junk- food adverts during children's TV.

But Which? researchers found leading manufacturers were now using 20 different marketing techniques to promote unhealthy foods.

The most popular methods used the internet, children's films and the World Cup.

The firms are using websites aimed at children to offer free branded downloads, online games, competitions or links to TV adverts for the products. Some products encouraged "viral marketing", whereby children spread a brand message to each other by e-mailing cards, cartoons or spoof adverts.

Others appealed to youngsters by offering free toys or marketing tie-ins with popular Hollywood films. It named McDonald's and Coca-Cola's World Cup sponsorship as examples of indirect marketing which effectively reached children.

Other food companies whose marketing is criticised in the report are Burger King, Cadbury Schweppes, Haribo, Kellogg's, KFC, Kraft, Masterfoods, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Weetabix.

Nick Stace, the campaigns and communications director at Which?, said: "Food marketers are treating children as blank canvases on which to paint their branding; embedding unhealthy food choices from a very young age and adding to the UK's rising child obesity problems.

"How can parents be expected to give children a healthy diet when these sophisticated, underhand techniques are targeting their children often behind their backs? Most of their so called responsible marketing policies are simply empty rhetoric."

He added: "The approach of a number of companies is to go around the back door to go direct to children. [Parents] can't necessarily control the messages that their children are receiving."

Ian Tokelove, a spokesman for the Food Commission, which promotes healthy eating, agreed with the principal charge. "Food and drink manufacturers are increasingly using e-mail, texting and websites to target children with sophisticated, interactive advertising. Such one-to-one marketing bypasses all parental control and exposes young children to highly effective advertising techniques, often promoting unhealthy food choices," he said.

Carina Norris, an Edinburgh-based nutritionist, said: "Children are extremely brand-aware, as much with food as with anything else. There are proposals to restrict television advertising, but this report makes it clear the regulators would be as well to look at other forms of advertising, such as the internet.

"Children who are invited to join a club on a particular website may think it's just good fun, but they are still being subliminally marketed to."

However, Julian Hunt, the director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, accused Which? of failing to work in partnership with the industry to promote responsible marketing.

"We're seeking to work constructively with NGOs [non-governmental organisations] and government on all aspects of marketing to children in the Department of Health's food and drink advertising and promotion forum. It's disappointing that rather than work in this spirit of co-operation and partnership, Which? has decided to generate cheap headlines," he said.

Several of the companies in the Which? list hit back at the report's authors.

Kellogg's spokesman, Chris Wermann, insisted the industry was already voluntarily changing marketing practices, accusing Which? of using "out of date, misleading or plain wrong" information.

McDonald's said: "We completely reject the notion that any of the methods by which we advertise are 'underhand', or that we market so-called 'junk food' to children." Nestlé said: "Nestlé is committed to communicating responsibly with all our consumers, particularly children."


DURING 2006, KFC sponsored Ant & Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, which is broadcast on Saturday evening before the watershed. TV advertisements in 2006 targeted the whole family with the "KFC family feast" and the "KFC Mum's night off bucket".

Another advertisement showed a family gathered around a "KFC favourites bucket".

The report said KFC gives away free collectible toys with their children's meals. Promotions during 2006 have included "Marvin's Magic tricks".

According to Which?, KFC said when the report went to print that it was ending all its children's toy promotions. KFC told Which? it has not targeted children with advertising "for a number of years".


COCA-Cola has a sponsored room for families to stay in, at Alton Towers theme park.

Its brightly coloured celebration suite at the park's hotel features streamers and balloons and a "fully stocked fridge of refreshing, ice-cold Coca-Cola". The brand was a major sponsor of the World Cup, using web-based videos to advertise Coke-branded mascots, while its website featured exclusive Wayne Rooney films to download along with advertisements for the brand. It also offered children aged 13 to 15 the chance to be a World Cup flag-bearer.

Coca-Cola claims that for the "past 50 years" its policy has not been to target under-12s or use celebrities who have a specific children-focus.


HARIBO has its own "Planet Haribo" website containing online games, all of which feature the brand's sweets - whether it's shooting cola bottles or collecting Gold Bears. In some cases they contain on-screen adverts for sweets.

Registering on the website helps to improve scores and children can compete to get stickers, sweets and pens.

For £2.99, children can join the Haribo club and receive sweets, a soft toy and regular bulletins, including news of events and competitions. The brand's Pez sweets and dispensers have featured popular children's characters, most recently from Chicken Little, Cars, Looney Tunes, Ice Age and Bratz.

Haribo says it takes its responsibilities seriously.


KELLOGG'S has a number of websites aimed at children which offer visitors free downloads.

These include branded computer screensavers and wallpapers, as well as cereal-related online games.

The brand has also given away CD-ROMs linked to Art Attack, the popular children's television programme.

A similar promotion offered Horrible Histories audio books.

Kellogg's relies on cartoon characters - including Tony the Tiger and Coco the Monkey - to create brand recognition, which is particularly strong among children.

The company claims that it has a long-standing commitment to advertising and marketing its products to children in a responsible manner.


A 'KID'S zone' on the McDonald's website offers games, pictures of cartoon characters to print and colour in, screensavers, e-cards and competitions. Downloadable wallpapers in August featured Chicken Little and Ronald McDonald, while e-cards featured various popular films such as Cars and Narnia. Promotions included a free Cars storybook, a limited edition. Cars ice cream dish and a prize draw with the chance to win PlayStation 2 games.

McDonald's recently renewed its sponsorship of the FIFA World Cup.

This year in the UK it focused on its player escorts programme, which takes children to the tournament and saw 1,408 children walk on with players.


CADBURY offers teachers a series of educational resource packs and fact sheets to help with student projects.

Titles include "Mixing/ Melting and Making" and "The World of Chocolate".

According to the Which? report, the Cadbury World website also features a learning zone where pupils can find downloadable activities, facts and illustrations.

Over the Easter bank holiday, Longleat Safari Park ran an "Easter Choc Trail" which Cadbury sponsored. Entrants had to complete a quiz sheet and all correct answers won a chocolate prize.

Similarly, at Alton Towers theme park, anyone over the height of 1.4m can go on the popular "Air" ride, sponsored by Cadbury Heroes.


AS well as information about the free toys with children's meals, the Burger King website offers a "Free Zone" where content changes regularly.

There are " wallpaper" and screensavers to download, games and a customisable main page. This features a bedroom where children can change the colour schemes and put their name on the door. The changes will be saved if they register.

For younger children, there are pictures to print off and colour in.

Burger King also uses film tie-ins to promote its children's meals.

The company is quoted as saying: "It is essential that any advertising to children must be responsible and adhere to the strict code of practice on advertising to children."


TV AND cinema adverts promoted the benefits of Dairylea products in April and May 2006 with the strapline: "Herds of Dairylea goodness".

From August 2006, Kraft's "Get Moovin" initiative included the chance to win prizes with packs of Dairylea Rippers. Dairylea Dunkers were promoted to children as a good way to "refuel after school" in the summer of 2006, and Dairylea Rippers were advertised in March and April by cartoon cows as being "rippingly good fun" and also full of calcium. According to Which? they are also high in saturates and salt. Kraft says it does not target advertising at pre-school children and takes "extra precautions when communicating to children up to age 12".


NESTLE has a website for Nesquik, Golden Nuggets and Cookie Crisp. The site has a range of games to encourage children to spend time on the site.

The final game asks children to look for hidden items around the site, which also shows advertising messages in the form of product logos and brand icons.

Another Nesquik website invites interested children to explore a "themepark" where there are games featuring Quicky the rabbit, an online sticker album, screensavers, "wallpaper" and Quicky icons to download.

The company also makes use of viral marketing. Visitors to the website are invited to leave a secret message for a friend, requiring both e-mail addresses.


ADVERTISEMENTS during the World Cup featured the football stars Thierry Henry and David Beckham, while Pepsi's website offered visitors the chance to win one of five autographed prints by submitting videos using the campaign's "da da da" theme as a soundtrack.

Visitors could choose from a selection of prank calls to be sent to a friend's mobile, see footballers, including Beckham and Ronaldinho play against lederhosen-clad men, and download content such as screensavers, ringtones and mobile-phone "wallpapers".

According to the report, the company says: "We do not advertise directly to children under the age of 12 and haven't done so for several years."


IN June and July, a Skittles "big summer" website offered the chance to win tickets to see Robbie Williams. Two teams - boys versus girls - were set various challenges. Visitors to the website were invited to vote for their favourite team to enter the prize draw.

The promotion was run in conjunction with teenagers' magazine Smash Hits.

Sneak magazine, also aimed at teenagers, regularly included a Starburst promotion called "The Juice".

It featured clothes, beauty products and gig information and was dubbed as "the most mouth-watering stuff happening this week".

According to the report, the company's stated policy is to "not advertise to children".


MARCH saw the start of a sponsorship deal between Weetabix and Channel 5's soap Home and Away.

The campaign showcased the entire range, including products that are low in sugar, fat and salt, but it initially featured Weetabix Minis and Weetos, both of which, according to the report, are high in sugar.

From May, customers could find a free pack of football stickers in packs of Weetos and send for the sticker album. Children were encouraged to "keep looking in special packs of Weetos for your chance to find [your favourite player]".

The Weetabix advertising policy? "Weetabix does not target children in any advertising and does not sample products to children directly in any form."

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