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New Ways of Advertising to Children

— Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University
Updated on Oct 26, 2010

Television has traditionally been the preferred medium for children’s food advertising, but the landscape is changing rapidly. Today, the food industry markets aggressively in magazines, via the Internet, through cell phones and text messages, in video and computer games, in movies and subsequent tie-ins with food products and fast food chains, and even in schools.

To fight regulation and limits on advertising, the food industry claims that obesity has increased at the same time children are watching less television and hence see fewer TV ads for food. Children watch less TV because their attention is being captured by other electronic media through heavy use of video games, computers, and portable media playing devices.

The industry has thus been forced to diversify their methods and has done so brilliantly, using war-like terms to describe their new methods (guerilla marketing, viral marketing, stealth marketing). Some examples include:

Special social groups for children, like the Ronald McDonald Kids’ Club, offer members store discounts and privileges, fun activities and access to events, and free newsletters.

Advergaming, or the practice of using video games to advertise products, involves excessive product placement in website, computer and video games. On November 19, 2006, Burger King establishments in North America began selling collectible X-Box games with its value meals. The games feature nuanced product placement of the company’s mascot, The King, and various food products. In another prime example, Kellogg’s “Fun K Town” website offers links to interactive online games like Apple Jacks Crashers, Froot Loops Treasure Island, and others featuring Pop-Tarts, Eggo Waffles, and Cocoa Krispies.

Product placement is the practice through which companies pay for their products to appear in a given media form. Perhaps the earliest example of product placement is the incorporation of Reese’s Pieces candies in the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Today, product placement is not limited to the silver screen. The Coca-Cola Company reportedly paid $26 million to aggressively promote Coke products on the popular television show American Idol. Branded red cups are displayed prominently on the judges table, while Coke’s signature appears throughout the set: in the “red room” waiting area, behind the onstage red couch, in pictures on the walls, and much more. According to Advertising Age magazine, McDonald’s has offered to pay rap artists up to $5 every time a song includes the words “Big Mac” in its lyrics.

Television advertising has even slipped into schools. Channel One, a United States television news program that public and private schools broadcast to students in exchange for the loan of media equipment, reaches 12,000 schools, 400,000 teachers, and eight million young viewers on a daily basis. Researchers report that 69% of commercials broadcasted on Channel One over a four-week period were for food items like soda, fast food, chips, and candy.

The latest cell phones are equipped with a GPS (Global Positioning System) chip, which enables companies to identify the location of the user. Child marketers boast that tens of millions of children power up a cell phone when they leave school each day and can (and will) be beamed advertisements to local food establishments.

The ability of parents to shield their children from marketing becomes more severely eroded as technology rapidly evolves. According to a recent survey of new marketing techniques, researchers Story and French found that little about the technology has changed; the foods most heavily marketed to children continue to be high in sugar and fat and sabotage healthier eating.

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