Advocates Rip Digital Tactics

WASHINGTON Two consumer advocacy groups today released a joint report that examines how food and beverage companies use digital technology to market products to children.

The groups will use the report as ammunition to convince the Federal Trade Commission to question companies about how they use digital media in its upcoming probe of how food, beverage and chain restaurant firms market junk food to kids.

In a letter to the FTC, which accompanied the report, the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Center for Digital Democracy said, “While most of the public policy debate has focused on television advertising, food marketing to children and teenagers has already expanded into a broad range of new digital platforms. This new ‘marketing ecosystem’ is not separate from television, but rather encompasses all media. As our research shows, major food and beverage brands are utilizing a variety of new venues—including cell phones, instant messaging, video games, user-generated video, and three-dimensional virtual worlds—in their efforts to target children and adolescents and to foster ongoing personal relationships with them, often under the radar of parents.”

The report, called “Interactive Food & Beverage Marketing: Targeting Children and Youth in the Digital Age,” examines the McDonald’s mobile marketing campaign that targets young cell-phone users; Coca-Cola’s “My Coke Rewards” program, where special product codes allow users to download ring tones; the Wendy’s viral video on YouTube called “Molly Grows Up”; and the “Instant Def” Webisodes produced by Mars to promote its Snickers brand, among other examples.

“As this digital marketing system moves swiftly into place, we have a relatively brief period to establish policies and marketing standards that could help prevent today’s young people—and future generations—from suffering the serious health consequences of poor nutrition,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, who co-authored the report with American University professor Kathryn Montgomery.

The advertising industry argues that it has a self-regulatory system in place at the Children’s Advertising Review Unit, part of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, to monitor how company’s market to children.

“Advertisers have very high responsibilities when we advertise to children,” said Dan Jaffe, evp of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers. “And we particularly believe this is true when we advertise to children since they are not miniature adults. We have created very extensive and strong self-regulatory policies about how we advertise to children in any media.”

The FTC said last month that it plans to subpoena 44 companies to prepare a report to the Senate on the role marketing plays in childhood obesity.

John Feldman, a partner with Reed Smith, a law firm that represents the ANA, said the FTC has already said it would conduct a detailed and far-reaching investigation of industry marketing practices, including details on the use of traditional media to target kids 17 and under; viral, guerrilla and word-of-mouth marketing activities; efforts to target race, ethnicity and gender; in-store material; licensing; entertainment; and use of celebrities.

“Let’s assume that the FTC finds, consistent with what this report says, that marketers are utilizing technology in a way to contact children more than ever before,” Feldman said. “Marketers know they are dealing with children in different ways. This is not the Wild West. We have a self-regulatory system that is applied to all media.”