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Food groups increase use of internet to target children
 Lauren Foster and Jenny Wiggins
Financial Times, July 19, 2006


Food companies are increasingly using the internet to deepen children's exposure to marketing messages through online games and commercials, blurring the lines between advertising and entertainment, a new study has found.

The study of 77 US-based food company websites by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation comes as governments try to crack down on the marketing of sugary and salty snacks to children to curtail rising levels of childhood obesity.

However, regulators have no authority to call for changes to corporate websites, because information provided by companies on their own websites is considered "editorial" rather than "advertising".

The Kaiser Foundation, which claims to have undertaken the first comprehensive study of online advertising to children, found that 85 per cent of the top US food brands that target kids though television advertising also used branded websites.

It said the brand-related information contained on websites was more extensive than the information contained in a traditional 30-second television advertisement, and allowed children to spend an unlimited amount of time interacting with specific brands. It also said some websites "recruited" children as marketers, using them to promote branded messages to their friends.

"Online advertising's reach isn't as broad as that of television, but it's much deeper," said Vicky Rideout, vice-president and director of Kaiser's programme for the study of entertainment media and health, who oversaw the research.

The report found that 73 per cent of the websites included "advergames" (games in which a company's product is featured), ranging from one to more than 60 games per site.

It also found that 64 per cent of sites used viral marketing (which encourages children to contact their peers about a specific product) and more than half gave children online access to television advertisements.

Based on data from Nielsen NetRatings, the sites surveyed received more than 12.2m visits from children aged two to 11 in the second quarter of 2005.

Governments in the US and Europe have been trying to restrict children's access to junk foods by banning junk foods in school vending machines, and restricting the amount of junk food advertisements on television.

However, rapid advances in technology mean that companies are able to use other marketing methods.

A study by UK consumer group Which? earlier this year found that some food companies were encouraging children to text codes using mobile phones to enter competitions.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola recently said trials of new vending machines that allowed users to take digital photos and download ringtones for mobile phones could be replicated worldwide as the soft drinks company seeks to interact more directly with consumers.

The Cokefridge machine, which is being trialled in Germany, has an interactive screen that runs advertisements, and allows users to obtain free photos, games, logos and ringtones after they have bought a drink.

The US advertising industry is developing more detailed voluntary guidelines for online marketing to children, expected to be released shortly.

About 16 per cent of US children and teenagers aged six to 19 are obese, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


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